Y’know, people think that movies today are so brutal and shocking, but you know what? It’s been that way for a while. Look at the 70s. You had movies like Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and Taxi Driver that pushed the buttons of sensitive viewers. I mean what’s more objectionable? The Matrix‘s lobby scene or waking up with a severed horse head?
My dad and I were trying to find something to watch on a Sunday night and we were rooting through his DVD collection only to happen upon Straw Dogs. Neither of us had ever seen it, and I’d never seen a Peckinpah movie before. So we just shrugged our shoulders, popped in the DVD and sat down to watch it, completely innocent of what the movie was about.
So Straw Dogs is about Dustin Hoffman moving to the English countryside with his gum-smacking trophy wife. Right off the bat, we get the feeling that there’s some dischord going on. A few minutes into the movie we get a faceful of Dustin’s wife’s righteous rack encased in a white sweater… with no bra. It’s impossible not to notice and it seems the men helping the couple move things to their house is taking notice, too. Dustin leaves her to get something at the local pub and a completely pointless argument breaks out where a big, drunken patron breaks a bunch of glasses. Meanwhile one of the men he’s hired to help him build a garage for their country house is making moves on Sweater McNipplehard and she’s not enjoying the attention. The unease keeps ramping up throughout the film. Dustin is some sort of ridiculous astromathematician (?!) and his young, hot wife is upset he doesn’t have more time for her. The workers at their house get more and more bold with their leering and bullying, with the couple starting to receive some disturbing “messages” aimed at them. Dustin, the wimpiest man on earth, says he intends to deal with these huge, swarthy hooligans but chickens out at the last second. His cowardice leads to a shocking act of violence that will bring his soft-spoken demeanor to the breaking point.
If it seems like a slow film from that description, half of it is because I wanted to withhold some of the more surprising twists from the narrative so that I don’t completely ruin the experience. The other half is that it is a pretty slow film, for what it is. It’s only two hours long, but it feels like this movie could’ve gotten the same point across in 100 minutes rather than 120. And it doesn’t help that hardly anything besides escalating tension happens for the first 90 minutes. The same points keep getting drilled into us without much variation. Dustin is a total geeky, meek loser. His wife is smoking hot (in that 70s, English way) and is totally flaunting her assets around everyone. The guys working on their garage are stupid brutes who wanna fuck the living shit out of Sweater McNipplehard. There is CONFLICT because of this. Etc. etc. I’m usually not one to say that LESS development is called for in a film, but when it makes me nearly want to bail on a film after the first half, perhaps it’s a might repetitive and slow.
The upside to this is that the sleepy English countryside is richly illustrated through all of the slow scenes of dialogue and simmering lust and loathing. And all of the character development really puts you into the head of Dustin, which is important for what comes later. I really began to identify with him somewhere in the film, which is surprising because he really does play a completely wimpy nerd. And when things do pick up, boy, do they pick up. The last half an hour of the movie is… god, I hesitate to use the term “edge of your seat,” but really, it is. I was rapt in attention to the screen. It’s suspense that holds up even today.
And really, I can see how this movie could almost be viewed as a predecessor of sorts to modern films like Panic Room, or Funny Games. (Shut up, I liked them both!) Well, really, this movie could be viewed as the anti-Funny Games. The transformation that Dustin goes through when he’s pushed too far feels both natural and completely unbelievable. We know him as the quiet, soft-spoken pacifist and something in him just snaps and he turns into a violent, possessive, righteous Republican conservative Bush-voting beast. He drags his wife around by the hair and tells her if she doesn’t behave, he’ll break her neck. (No, he literally says this; it’s both disturbing and awesome.) He actually gains MORE control when put into a perilous situation and the movie (arguably) glorifies violence. Funny Games, on the other hand, is all about the helplessness and victimization of the family who gets terrorized. These poor people have absolutely no control over their situation, cruelty being inflicted upon them at the random whim of another. There’s even opposites at work in the villains. In Straw Dogs, the aggressors are loutish, barely-literate thugs. The villains of Funny Games are well-mannered, literate young men who look ready to play a round of golf. And Funny Games definitely isn’t as violent as Straw Dogs (no violence happens on-screen) and even has a rather dark message opposing the glorification that Straw Dogs lavishes on violence. Food for thought or just baseless comparison from an idiot? You decide!
Putting story and thematic issues aside, the acting is actually pretty good. There’s a sort of naturalistic method to Dustin’s acting. It’s generally not very stagey or very affected… a nice change of pace from his recent roles where he’s been prattling with ridiculous accents that get in the way of his ability to act. He’s a nice fit for the character, too, since I sort of imagine Dustin in real life to be mild-mannered to a fault even though I know he’s probably an awful, jaded Hollywood player. Susan George does a good job as his tit-candy wife, too. She’s so childish yet she has an unexpected dignity to her demeanor. But her good acting is muddled by the fact that her character is all over the place in this movie and she has to do and say some pretty unlikable things (like most of the cast, actually) by the end of it.
Bottom line: Am I recommending this or not? Yyyyyyyyeah, sure I am. If you have an appreciation for pre-1980s film and don’t mind a good, long setup, there’s lots of benefits to reap from watching Straw Dogs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go set up my bear trap.