Tuesday, May 31, 2011
#129: Straw Dogs
Majorly criticized in the year of it's release for a prolonged rape sequence, Straw Dogs is a movie, that will jolt you. Based on a novel, acclaimed director and screenplay writer Sam Peckinpah released the movie in 1971 after fighting a mean battle with the censors. The protagonist is David Sunmer (Dustin Hoffman), a peace loving mathematician who has moved to Wakely, a small community town in English countryside with his wife Amy (Susan George).
From the first scene itself, we know that the sexual quotient in the movie is going to be high. Amy, for instance, is a woman who doesn't believe in wearing a bra. Candice, the fifteen year-old daughter of the village hooligan Tom has her eyes on David. The lustful energy of the four workers who are helping the Sunmers set up the garage is also rising because they keep peeking into the house and Amy's nude jaunts around the house aren't helping matters. The centerpiece of all the protest against Straw Dogs, the rape of Amy by two of those workers, is the very catalyst the movie needed to jumpstart itself after a slow first 30 minutes. Till then with a pace that matched that of the village life, the movie was ambling nowhere. The sequence where Amy gets physically molested is as unnverving as brutal for one of the perpetrators is her ex-lover. To intensify the effect, Peckinpah keeps cutting to another location where David is waiting for some birds to hunt them down subtly conveying his helplessness and ignorance about the crime.
What happens from thereon spins the movie into a different planet. Candice, is accidentally killed by a simpleton called Niles. When Tom and his friends -the four workers get to know that Niles is recovering after being hit by David's car, in the Senmer home, they literally shake up the house to get to Niles. Except that David wouldn't let them in. The last thirty minutes of the movie are an uninhibited display of David's raw courage as the Senmers try to stave off five goons. The intensity of the climax matches the ingenuity of David as he pulls out all stops to prevent their house's hijack. The movie's poster as you will see is a disturbing close-up image of Hoffman with a half-broken pair of specs. Not only is that poster a piece of art, it also conveys the one-man show that the movie, really is. This is not to say that the others weren't good but that the movie revolves around David's character transformation.
The numerous layers involved in Straw Dogs make it one of the most complex movies of the 70s. At one level it's a movie about a couple defending their basic rights of dignity. At another level, it's a movie about our violent inner selves- cementing the belief that there's a beast in all of us. Every character in the movie had it's flaws. David, in spite of his academic bent is actually someone who has got the sharp instincts of a bird-hunter and for all his amiable disposition towards the end, in a way relished the violence he underwent. Amy is a loyal wife but she loves dressing provocatively in public. The same trend holds for the supporting characters.
Straw Dogs is every bit an engima. It has the air of a thriller and the compulsion of a drama. No wonder, some are still calling it Peckinpah's best.