David Zelag Goodman

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Straw Dogs Review


Extraordinary
The movies you love best aren't always the ones whose ideas you agree with. D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation is easy to admire for its technical innovation but easy to despise for its virulent racism; the Nazi hagiography Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will has similar pleasures - and problems. Sam Peckinpah's 1971 masterpiece Straw Dogs isn't as overtly problematic as those films. It's not viciously racist, nor does it glorify totalitarianism. But it's messy stuff all the same. The surface violence that made it famous in 1971 looks more or less timid now, but the deep cynicism at the core of the movie - this is a world where intelligence is suspect, murder equals redemption, and rape is almost tolerable - is still chilling.

Dustin Hoffman plays the hero, David Sumner, and at first he seems to be continuing in the string of nebbishy neurotic roles he took previously in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. A mild-mannered American college professor, he's arrived in western England with his wife Amy (a brave and brilliant Susan George) so he can have peace and quiet to work on his "astral mathematics." The small town, full of sad stone houses and often cloaked in fog, is where Amy grew up, and she's almost immediately stalked by a passel of alcoholic locals. The film's first five minutes has some virtuosic foreshadowing in it, giving us shots of David and Amy carrying a large and intimidating "mantrap" (basically a man-sized bear trap); tight shots of thuggish locals like Charlie (Del Henney) getting too close to the pair; a shot of Amy's sweatered chest, noticeably bra-less, which will become an important plot point later. Subtly and quickly, Peckinpah announces his three themes: sex, intimidation, and violence. It's gonna be interesting, but it's not gonna be easy to get through.

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