note: article contains spoilers and may require a viewing of "Straw Dogs"
I’ve seen “Straw Dogs” only once before last night. It was about a decade ago and I did not find the film that good. I honestly didn’t know what was so special about it at the time. All the juicy violence at the end was great, but what’s up with all the boring crap before it?
I often attribute reactions like that to the reputation of the film and my distorted expectations of it, and the movie not delivering on those distorted expectations of mine. Still, one of the most pleasant movie watching experiences for me was always to return to “classics” that I didn’t find that appealing the first time around and give them another go. More often than not I’m completely floored by the classic that I revisit because my existing familiarity with the film properly rearranges my expectations. This is certainly true in this case as I’ve completely fallen in love with “Straw Dogs” last night.
And it’s frankly comical how many classic films underwent this exact pattern with me, many of my favorite films did as well including “Blade Runner”, “Vertigo” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. This is why I love to re-watch even the films I didn’t enjoy the first time around (unless the film in question is obvious crap like “Transformers” or “Caligula”) because you can never know what you’ll discover in it that might inexplicably grab your attention, or what thought it might inspire, making a movie that’s a chore to watch a source of utter obsession.
What captivated me about “Straw Dogs” was the psychological nuance of the film as a whole. On the surface you’d say that the town is gradually becoming more hostile towards David and Amy, but in many ways they are provoking this hostility as well. This is not to say that there’s not an inherent animosity present, especially towards David as an outsider and American. However this is a very realistic portrayal of real communities that are closed off like this, so the film does not idealize the rural life but shows it as somewhat incestuous and backwards (even directly incestuous and backwards; note the subtly sexualized relationship between the teenage Hedden siblings). Everyone knows everyone and word travels fast in the village, as it’s clear in the first pub scene where David is taken aback by the people’s knowledge of his setup in the house that he just moved to with his wife. But as I said David and Amy are not completely innocent either.
In the very first scene of the film Amy is presented as a provocateur as she walks the village street bra-less. And in later scenes she goes even further, consciously displaying her bare breasts and panties to the men working on the garage roof. This in no way justifies what happens to her, but it does inspire the question of why she’d act this way? I am not completely certain but I think that the answer lies in her dysfunctional relationship with David. It is clear that she wants his attention and that she has expectations of David that he is reluctant to fulfill, like solving the cat problem (which I will go in to a bit later). She openly questions his manhood often and she clearly wants him to act decisively like a “real man” would. So with this in mind she could be openly inviting danger with her provocations so David can step in and protect her and be the man she wants him to be.
And in a weird way this could possibly explain why she acts the way she does during the infamous rape scene, because Charlie might somehow fit in to this girlish fantasy of a big, strong and determined man. But the rape is only intensified when her fantasy is shattered completely once Charlie helps his mate have a go as well. The irony is that David eventually does act decisively and like a “real man”, at which point she of course refuses to help him. At that point the gravity of the situation seems too real and pure animalistic survival instinct makes any notion of fantasy and wishful thinking completely irrelevant. But once we’re there, when shit hits the fan in the last third of the film, the usually reserved David seems very much in his element.
Could it be that this is the real David and that the mumbling bookworm was just a façade? The more I think about it the more it seems that the David from the last third of the film is David’s repressed true self, and as much as he seems courageous he is also directly fueling the conflict with the guys outside and because of him it rapidly escalates.
As odd as it may seem, this brings me to the dead cat. After the film ended I was fascinated by the question of who exactly killed the damn cat. Yes, the plot suggests that it’s the guys that where fixing the roof, but there is a strong possibility that David is the cat killer as well. Bear with me please. When Amy and David are looking for the cat the first time, Amy is looking all over the place, while David is just pretending to be looking for the cat. He looks in the booze cabinet calling for the kitty, and pulls out a bottle and pours himself a drink. Once the cat turns up, we see David throwing fruit at it in the kitchen, hitting the cat three times. I don’t think David liked that cat very much, and maybe was even tormenting it because of his annoyance at the attention his wife has been getting. Furthermore it is David who finds the dead cat and his reaction is pretty much pure silence. He is even very dismissive initially of the idea that the guys fixing the roof killed it, but gives in once Amy starts questioning his manly qualities again. Now I am not 100% sold on this idea myself, but I do think that the cat theory could be a very revealing clue in to David’s more violent true nature if it stands additional scrutiny.
“Straw Dogs” portrays human nature in its many facets, be it sexuality, group mentality or our inherent tendency for violence. Because both Amy and David provoke violence in their own ways, and probably subconsciously, it presents it as something unavoidable and very much a part of our nature. This is a supreme psychological thriller that I will certainly return to many more times.
Dustin Hoffman - David Summer
Susan George - Amy Summer
Del Henney - Charlie Venner
Peter Vaughan - Tom Hedden
Ken Hutchinson - Norman Scutt
Straw Dogs on IMDb