Friday, 5 October 2012

STRAW DOGS (1971)


The opening shot of STRAW DOGS shows children swarming together like a collection of bacteria under a microscope. This clinical perspective seems to pervade throughout the film. A self-contained society is portrayed with its codes and conventions, where law and order seems always on the verge of disintegration.

The hollow, bleak Cornish locations are used effectively to reflect the bleak aspects of the story. Sam Peckinpah uses elements of the Western: small communities; intrigue about strangers and each other’s secrets; suspicions and hatred of the unknown. Dustin Hoffman as the American outsider is an intensely vulnerable man, uncertain of his place in this remote village. The hostility is indirect at first, sarcastic even, as their games with him and his Cornish wife (Susan George) become increasingly perverse. The more he tries to psychologically outwit his tormentors the more he finds himself entrenched and humiliated. Finally, his territorial imperatives are shattered as the tormentors invade his most private realms: his bedroom and his wife.

The emphasis is on man’s propensity for violence, while the idea of having a hero as the central character is constantly questioned. The fact that Hoffman plays a sensitive mathematician and is capable of wreaking such primal revenge on this ragged bunch underlines this theme running through the film that anyone is capable of brutality and murder. Hoffman’s character is cold and cowardly. Enlightenment and vengeance comes after he is brutalised himself. In his ruthless disposal of the enemy and his responsibility for the wellbeing of the sex offender, Henry Nile (David Warner), he reveals all of his animalistic survival instincts.

It makes for uncomfortable viewing and is as complex and uncompromising as another favourite of mine, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. In John McNaughton’s film, the relationship between the audience and viewer is as challenging: we are asked to identify with a real killer. In both films, the protracted rape scenes seem to turn our attention back to our own voyeuristic desires. It is not titillating. Cutting back on these scenes in both films causes more harm than good.

There are brilliantly choreographed sequences, such as the bizarre church fete (intercut with a violent assault). The finely staged siege on the cottage is shot and edited with precision, each shot leading us to anticipate the next as our worse expectations are realised. This overwhelming invasion of the cottage is shot in a monochrome, misty style. I could hear shared gasps in the cinema by the close of this film. It was reminiscent of the experience of re-watching THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE with a modern audience. There are no safe outlets, or unnecessary and distracting stylisation which seems to have reconditioned modern horror audiences.