Wednesday 18 May 2016

1,001 Films: "Straw Dogs" (1971)

Straw Dogs remains one to rank alongside Salò and Irreversible in the pantheon of horribly effective features, films it's possible to admire viscerally and technically, even as you object to them on a dozen other levels, and come away feeling in need of a long hot shower. Bespectacled American mathematician Dustin Hoffman moves to a small, inward-looking Cornish village with his younger bride, landowner's daughter Susan George. An extended build-up involves David Warner as a paedophilic plot device, and a lingering emphasis on guns and the antique man-trap hanging over the couple's fireplace, but the general narrative thrust is that, while Hoffman's nerd busies himself with formulae, his wife, bored and braless, catches the eye of the local yahoos restoring their property. Suffice to say, it all ends unhappily.

It would have been particularly contentious for having arrived at the time of peace protests and women's lib: at best, the film can be understood as blunt mischief-making on the part of Peckinpah the provocateur; at worst, a load of reactionary macho codswallop. George, introduced as a pair of erect nipples, has remarkably little to do save sit around the house and wait for something bad to happen to her so as to kickstart the plot. As it currently stands - and the sequence has incurred extensive cuts and counter-cuts over the decades - the central rape scene appears poorly handled, allowed to become more ambiguous (and actually more of a sideshow) than it almost certainly should have been; the only simple thing about it is the shot of George seemingly enjoying a post-coital cigarette.

Elsewhere, while the Wild Bunch's demise in a hail of bullets proved unquestionably iconic, there's something far less heroic about applying a similar slow-motion fetishism to shots of a rapist slapping his victim around. The editing is, in the main, magnificently ruthless - as though the film were cut on the teeth of the man-trap itself - but it's let down by its rather sub-Roegian manner of intercutting the assault with images of Hoffman clutching a limp shotgun. This is, of course, all part of Peckinpah's Darwinist offensive: the underlying idea is that the violation (in which a second rapist "tops" the first's grim handiwork) should liberate this worm of a husband, and turn him into the wife-slapping monster he, too, needs to be to survive. You could claim it as the origin of today's ordeal cinema, but what it leads to isn't the rigorous moral intelligence of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Funny Games, the last words in home-invasion terror, but misdirected posturing like Straightheads, and Eli Roth sniggering over boobs, bloodshed and backwards foreigners in those Hostel movies.

Straw Dogs is available on DVD through Fremantle Home Entertainment.

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