Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Straw Dogs (1971)

Director: Sam Pekinpah
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 118 min.
Score: 8 out of 10

"Heaven and earth are not humane, and regard the people as straw dogs."
- Lao Tzu

With 1969's The Wild Bunch director Sam Pekinpah pushed the boundries for violence in main stream cinema. With Straw Dogs he took onscreen mayhem to a new level as yet unseen in American movies.

Dustin Hoffman deftly portrays timid American mathematician David Sumner who has moved to rural England with his lovely new wife Amy (played by a then unknown Susan George). They have returned from New York City to her home town in an effort to escape the violence of urban America. They soon realize that there is violence everywhere. They quickly find themselves under the scrutiny of Amy's former boyfriend and his pals whom David has unwittingly hired to fix the roof on the barn that is attached to their new home. David finds it hit hard to fit in and begins to withdraw even from his wife. Solid performances are turned in by the rest of the cast of entirely British actors who were mostly as yet unknown in the US. David Warner (who was uncredited at the time) gives a sympathetic yet unnerving performance as villiage idiot Henry Niles who has an unexplained "problem" with young girls.

It is difficult to describe much else of the story without giving too much away. I will only say that David is pushed to a breaking point and when he steps beyond that point he discovers a side of him self that he (and everyone else around him) never knew existed.

As I said at the beginning Straw Dogs represented a new benchmark for on screen violence in mainstream American cinema. It was one of the very first films to portray a rape in stark, raw realism. It made me uncomfortable watching it so I can imagine what it must have been like for audiences in 1971. As testament to its controversial nature the film was banned from being released uncut on video and DVD in Britain from 1984 until 2002.

All things considered the film is not without it's flaws. As with much of Pekinpah's other films Straw Dogs is prone to periods of slow and leisurely storytelling that tends to allow the viewer to drift away from the film. However, when he does bring you back in, it is for an explosive conclusion that will leave you reeling.

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