Director Sam Peckinpah liked to play rough, whether he was bombarding viewers with slow-motion bloodshed or defying good taste by showcasing the terrible behavior of evil characters, but in many ways he never put audiences through more abuse than he did with Straw Dogs. A complicated movie with a simple story, the picture is frequently misunderstood as a revenge tale, but a close examination of its storyline reveals something more devious; the motivation for the horrific violence the protagonist commits during the film’s climax is ambiguous, layered, and provocative.
Dustin Hoffman stars as David Sumner, an American mathematician who receives a grant to work in a remote English village that happens to be the hometown of his wife, Amy (Susan George). We meet the Sumners at the same time we meet the residents of the strange little village, so in just a few moments, Peckinpah and co-writer David Zelag Goodman establish how woefully out of place David is in a clannish, working-class enclave. Amy, meanwhile, is quite literally right at home; she’s also young and unsophisticated enough to think she can get away with flirtatious behavior around local young men who drink themselves stupid at the neighborhood pub every night. Out of boredom and a childish desire to be the center of attention in her household, Amy wears revealing clothes and even, at one point, parades naked in front of local men who are working on the remote farmhouse she and David have rented.
Meanwhile, an adult simpleton named Henry Niles (David Warner) lurks around the village, taunted by everyone because of some past offense in which he menaced a young girl. As the film progresses, these divergent elements—combined with a running trope of hyped-up young men, led by Charlie Venner (Del Henney), lusting after Amy and openly mocking David—come together during a bloody siege that comprises nearly the entire last half-hour of the movie.
Often cited in academic studies of cinematic violence, Straw Dogs is ostensibly a meditation on the idea of a civilized man pushed to savagery by circumstance, but it’s the nature of those circumstances that makes the film so thorny. It’s giving nothing away to say that Amy is assaulted partway through the movie, since the attack is foreshadowed almost from the first scene. However, people who talk about Straw Dogs often suggest the violence David subsequently commits is a response to his wife’s violation. It’s not, because Amy never tells her husband about the crime. Instead, David’s descent into brutality is triggered by random events. The implication, then, is that David was churning with animalistic fury all along, and that he was, psychically speaking, waiting for an excuse to unleash his inner demons.
This nuance helps define Straw Dogs as a deeply cynical film, because if Peckinpah had simply told a story about a man responding to an unspeakable crime, the picture would have become something like Death Wish (1974). Straw Dogs is entirely different. It’s an unpleasant film to watch, of course—there’s nothing fun about two hours of abuse, murder, rape, and excruciating tension—and the film has been debated and dissected so many times that whether it actually delivers meaningful insights is best left for individual viewers to decide. What’s beyond question, though, is that Straw Dogs represents Peckinpah’s artistry at its most forceful—and perverse.
Plus, the movie contains one of Hoffman’s nerviest performances, a meticulous balancing act in which Hoffman charts tiny, moment-to-moment changes in his character’s psyche while also giving himself over to scenes in which his character loses control. Leading lady George is hopelessly outclassed by Hoffman (a talent disparity that actually serves the story), and the English players portraying the locals all contribute salty flavors. Warner, whose performance is uncredited, stands out with his disquieting mixture of innocence and menace.
Straw Dogs: GROOVY