Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna, David Warner
Was there something in the air in Great Britain in 1971? Consider: That year brought us Ken Russell's The Devils, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Three films that have little in common -- apart from being made in Britain. Yet they are a remarkable trinity of controversy. Moreover, time has done nothing to dim the controversial nature of these movies (Warner Bros. is still hemming and hawing over a restored DVD release of The Devils).
And these are among the most misunderstood films ever made. In the case of Straw Dogs, that's particularly easy to understand. Peckinpah examines the violence that lurks beneath the surface in all of us with this story of a nebbishy mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) driven past the breaking point. It was -- and is -- a deeply disturbing attempt to force the viewer to look beneath the surface of his own civilized demeanor.
The film's approach is both shrewd and dangerous, because it deliberately tricks the viewer into wanting the Hoffman character to exact the most extreme retribution on his adversaries -- which, upon examination, turns the movie's resulting 20 climactic minutes of extreme violence into a slap in our collective faces.
Straw Dogs wasn't the first film to look on violence in this manner -- Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat comes immediately to mind -- but it was the most intense. Now, following David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, which explores many of the same themes from a slightly different direction, Peckinpah's film might seem more accessible. But nothing has dimmed its visceral impact. And likely nothing will.
I'm not a major fan of Peckinpah and his balletic violence, but this difficult film (which doesn't glamorize violence and is certainly not balletic) is a remarkable work. At its end, you may well echo the main character's final line. Stunning and disturbing.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke