Straw Dogs: Peckinpah’s Obsession – Review by Pauline Kael

Sam Peckinpah, who is an artist, has, with Straw Dogs, made the first Amer­ican film that is a fascist work of art.

by Pauline Kael

Sam Peckinpah is the youngest legendary American director. When you see his Western movies, you feel that he’s tearing himself apart, split between a compulsion to show that people are messing up their lives and an overwhelming love of the look and feel of those people rattling around in the grandeur and apparent freedom of the landscape. He is so passionate and sensual a film artist that you may experience his romantic perversity kinesthetically, and get quite giddy from feeling trapped and yet liberated, lies an artist in conflict with himself, but unmistakably and prodigally an artist, who uses images of great subtlety and emotional sophistication—the blown-up bridge of The Wild Bunch, with the horses and riders falling to the water in an instant extended to eternity; the exhilaration of space in Major Dundee; the visual tribute to the old Westerner of Ride the High Country, who sinks to the bottom of the frame to die; the vulture in The Wild Bunch sitting on a dead man’s chest and turning his squalid, naked head to stare at the camera.

Peckinpah has finally made the movie he’s been working his way toward: though small in scale, and not nearly as rich or varied as parts of his earlier films, Straw Dogs is a complete work—a structured vision of life on film. I think Peckinpah has been honest in terms of his convictions, and in terms of those convictions it’s a work of integrity, but it’s not a work of ma­jor intelligence. It represents—superficially, at least—a resolution of his conflicts, but in a spiritually ugly way. His earlier films were recklessly high on beauty and excess; this time he brings everyone down. The vision of Straw Dogs is narrow and puny, as obsessions with masculinity so often are; Peckinpah’s view of human experience seems to be no more than the sort of anecdote that drunks tell in bars. The story is a male fantasy about a mathematics professor’s hot young wife (Susan George) who wants to be raped and gets sodomized, which is more than she bargained for, and the timid cuckold-mathematician (Dustin Hoffman), who turns into a man when he learns to fight like an animal. The subject of Straw Dogs is machismo. It has been the obsession behind most of Peckinpah’s other films; now that it’s out in the open, his strengths and follies are clearly visible. His intuitions as a director are infinitely superior to his thinking.

From the opening shot, of ambiguous children’s games in a church cemetery, through to the close, there is no suggestion of human happiness, no frolicking animal, nothing blooming anywhere. The actors are not allowed their usual freedom to become characters, because they’re pawns in the overall scheme. The director doesn’t cut loose, either; he sacrifices the flow and spontaneity and the euphoria of spaciousness that have made him a legend— but not the savagery. For the first time, he has left the West, and for the first time he has a statement to make. The film is constructed like a demonstration—a misanthropic one. Working from a script that he wrote with David Z. Goodman, he carefully plants the prejudicial details that will later pay off; there are menacing closeups and more than one superfluous reaction shot. The preparations are not in themselves pleasurable; the atmosphere is ominous and oppressive, but you’re drawn in and you’re held, because you can feel that it is building purposefully. The setting is a Cornish village and a lonely farmhouse on the moor that the American mathematician—he hits a grant to work on celestial navigation—and his English wife have moved into. The farmhouse is singularly uninviting; no objects have been placed to catch the light or give off a glow. The landscape is barren and alien—not exactly desolate but neutral. Peckinpah is famous for the love that makes his Western landscapes expressive, but no love informs this landscape with feeling. The townspeople, who are creepy enough for a horror thriller, include a collection of stud louts who jeer at Hoffman while they snigger and smack their lips over his wife’s braless sweaters. One look at her provocative walk and you know that her husband is in trouble—that he can’t handle her.

The setting, the music, and the people are deliberately disquieting. It is a thriller—a machine headed for destruction. Hoffman, the victim of the villagers’ (and the director’s) contempt, is that stock figure of fun—the priggish, cowardly intellectual. It’s embarrassing that a man of Peckinpah’s gifts should offer such stale anti-intellectualism, but one can’t avoid the conclusion that Hoffman’s David is meant to be a symbolic “uncommitted” intellectual who is escaping the turmoil of America. “You left because you didn’t want to take a stand,” his wife taunts him, while we squirm and wish she didn’t represent the film’s point of view. Inevitably, David discovers that he can’t hide in his study, and that in the peaceful countryside nature is red in tooth and claw. The casting, however, is impeccable. Hoffman, notoriously a cerebral actor, projects thought before movement; he’s already a cartoon of an intellectual. There’s a split second of blank indecision before the face lights up with purpose. He never looks as if he just naturally lived in the places he’s stuck into for the camera; he always seems slightly the outsider anyway, and his duck walk and physical movements are a shade clumsy. Whatever he does seems a bit of a feat—and that, I think, is why we’re drawn to him. This role might almost be a continuation of his Benjamin in The Graduate.

The movie never explains how he and his Lolita-wife got together, and one’s mind strays from the action to ask this question. We can’t believe in this marriage; we feel it to be a marriage for Peckinpah’s convenience. Su­san George, with her smudged, pouty mouth and her smile that’s also a snarl, is superlatively cast and can act, besides; she’s a sex kitten here—an unsatisfied little tart, a child-wife who wants to be played with. David is even more of an ingenuous jerk than Benjamin. We don’t believe it when he interrupts his wife’s passionate lovemaking to wind the alarm clock; we just lake it as a point being racked up. Peckinpah treats him so prejudicially that it isn’t even meant to be funny when he stares in bewilderment at the joshing of the locals—as if no one in America ever indulged in coarse, dumb badinage—and it isn’t played for comedy when he goes out hunting with local yokels, who leave him sitting in the brush while they go back to get at his wife. David allows himself to be humiliated for an unpleasantly long time—for so long that he becomes quite unappetizing. We re just about ready to give up on him when his car hits a half-wit (David Warner) who is trying to escape these same bullies, who are after him for molesting a teen­age girl. David shelters the half-wit in the farmhouse, and, while waiting for a doctor to arrive, is confronted by them—a childish, crazed, indiscrimi­nately violent gang (like the most wanton degenerates among the Wild Bunch) led by a grizzle-bearded old horror who fills the screen with repulsiveness. David knows that this gang will beat the simpleton to death, and he feels he can’t turn him over. And that’s when the ferocity we’ve been dreading, and waiting for, erupts.

He announces, “This is where I live,” and he refuses to let the men come into his home; as they lay siege to the farmhouse, he destroys each of them—with grisly ingenuity—until the last one, whom his wife shoots. When he takes a knife to the first, his action comes faster than you expect, and it’s startling; you’re better prepared for the frenzies that follow, and although the tension mounts, you’re not caught off guard again. Not surprisingly, the audience cheers David’s kills; it is, after all, a classic example of the worm turning. It’s mild-mannered Destry putting on his guns, it’s the triumph of a superior man who is fighting for basic civilized principles over men who are presented as mindless human garbage. It’s David versus Goliath, and so, of course, the audience roots for David. When the last of the louts has him pinned down, and his terrified wife, with her finger on the trigger, panics and delays, it’s unbearable; your whole primitive moviegoer’s soul cries out for her to fire—and then she does. You just about can’t help feeling that way. You know that the response has been pulled out of you, but you’re trapped in that besieged house and you want the terror to be over, and if you believe in civilization at all you want David to win. As the situation has been set up, every possibility for nonviolent behavior has been eliminated.

If all that Straw Dogs set out to say was that certain situations may be posited in which fighting is a moral decision, few besides total pacifists would disagree. In a sense, what the movie does is play a variation on the old question asked of conscientious objectors: “What would you do if someone tried to rape your sister?” The question asked here is “What would you do if someone tried to invade your house to kill an innocent person?” In such extreme circumstances, probably most of us would use whatever means came to hand and brain, and if we won by violence we would be glad to have won but be sickened and disgusted at the choice forced on us. We would feel robbed of part of our humanity—as soldiers even in “just” wars are said to feel. And here is where we can part company with Peckinpah, for the movie intends to demonstrate not merely that there is a point at which a man will fight hut that he is a better man for it—a real man at last. The goal of the movie is to demonstrate that David enjoys the killing, and achieves his manhood in that self-recognition. David experiences no shock, no horror at what he has done but only a new self-assurance and pleasure. And Peckinpah wants us to dig the sexiness of violence. There is even the faint smile of satisfaction on (he tarty wife’s face that says she will have a new sexual respect for her husband. The movie lakes not merely a non-pacifist position but a rabidly anti-pacifist position; it confirms the old militarists’ view that pacifism is unmanly, is pussyfooting, is false to “nature.”

And this is the stupidity and moral corruption of Straw Dogs. It may be necessary to be violent in order to defend your home and your principles, but Peckinpah-Patton thinks that’s what makes a man a man. Yet there is also—one senses—a slight condescension on Peckinpah s part, and this relates to his anti-intellectualism: David has become as other men, has lost his intellectual s separation from the beasts, and Peckinpah’s victory is in bringing him down. Another ambivalence in Peckinpah is his contempt for the brute yokels and his respect for David for using brains to kill them. In the view of the movie, the yokels deserve their deaths. Peckinpah appears to despise them for their ignorance and inefficiency, just as he despises David as unnatural and dishonest when he is pacific. The corollary of David’s becoming a man is that the slutty, baby-doll wife becomes a woman when her husband learns to be man and master—which is what she wanted all along. As a woman, she is not expected to have any principles; she was perfectly willing to yield the half-wit to the mob—she doesn’t have an idea in her head but sex and self-preservation. The movie is tight, and it all adds up; the male cliches come together in a coherent fantasy.

Peckinpah is a spartan director this time, but with an aesthetic of cruelty. The only beauty he allows himself is in eroticism and violence—which he links by an extraordinary aestheticizing technique. The rape is one of the few truly erotic sequences on film, and the punches that subdue the wife have the exquisite languor of slightly slowed-down motion. This same languor is present in the later slaughters; the editing is superb in these sequences, with the slowing-down never prolonged but just long enough to fix the images of violence in your imagination, to make them seem already clas­sic and archaic—like something you remember—while they’re happening. The rape has heat to it—there can be little doubt of that—but what goes into that heat is the old male barroom attitude: we can see that she’s asking for it, she’s begging for it, that her every no means yes. The rape scene says that women really want the rough stuff, that deep down they’re little beasts asking to be made submissive. I think it’s clear from the structuring of the film and the use of the mathematician to represent intellectuals out of touch with their own natures that his wife is intended to be representative of woman’s nature, and that the louts understand her better than her hus­band does. The first rapist understands what she needs; the sodomist (this has been slightly trimmed, so that the film could get an R rating, rather than an X) terrorizes her. Another girl in the movie—the teen-ager who gets the gentle simpleton in trouble by making advances to him after David, the only other gentle person in town, rejects her—sustains the image of Eve the troublemaker. We know as we watch the teenager luring the simpleton that girls her age are not so hard up for boys to fondle them that they are going to play around with the village half-wit; we realize it’s a plot device to get him pursued by the louts. But implicit in this recognition is that the movie is a series of stratagems to get the characters into the positions that are wanted for a symbolic confrontation. The siege is not simply the climax but the proof, and it has the kick of a mule. What I am saying, I fear, is that Sam Peckinpah, who is an artist, has, with Straw Dogs, made the first Amer­ican film that is a fascist work of art.

It has an impact far beyond the greedy, opportunistic, fascist Dirty Harry or the stupid, reactionary The Cowboys, because—and here, as a woman, I must guess—it gets at the roots of the fantasies that men carry from earliest childhood. It confirms their secret fears and prejudices that women respect only brutes; it confirms the male insanity that there is no such thing as rape. The movie taps a sexual fascism—that is what machismo is—that is so much a part of folklore that it s on the underside of many an educated consciousness and is rampant among the uneducated. It’s what comes out in David’s character—what gives him that faintly smug expression at the end. Violence is erotic in the movie because a man’s prowess is in fighting and loving. The one earns him the right to the other. You can see why Peckinpah loaded the dice against David at the beginning: he had to make David such a weakling that only killing could rouse him to manhood.

I realize that it’s a terrible thing to say of someone whose gifts you admire that he has made a fascist classic. And in some ways Peckinpah’s attitudes are not that different from those of Norman Mailer, who is also afflicted with machismo. But Mailer isn’t so single-minded about it; he worries it and pokes at it and tries to dig into it. Despite Peckinpah’s artistry, there’s something basically grim and crude in Straw Dogs. It’s no news that men are capable of violence, but while most of us want to find ways to control that violence, Sam Peckinpah wants us to know that that’s all hypocrisy. He’s discovered the territorial imperative and wants to spread the Neander­thal word. At its sanest level, the movie says no more than that a man should defend his home, but Peckinpah has not only pushed this to a sexual test but turned the defense of the home into a destruction orgy, as if determined to trash everything and everyone on the screen. The fury goes way beyond making his point; it almost seems a fury against the flesh. The title has been extracted from a gnomic passage in Lao-tse: “Heaven and earth are ruthless and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless and treats the people as straw dogs.” That’s no sage, it’s a demon.

The New Yorker, January 29, 1972


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