Junior Bonner

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Junior Bonner

Though he died too young after having been reduced to directing Julian Lennon videos, the years since Sam Peckinpah's 1984 death have seen a greater appreciation of his work. At least one of his films, The Wild Bunch, is now regarded as an undisputed classic. But just as there's much more to Orson Welles than Citizen Kane, Peckinpah's filmography is worth a deeper look, as the recently re-released, letterboxed Junior Bonner and Straw Dogs illustrate. Superficially at least, Junior Bonner (1972) is not what most people expect from Peckinpah. Steve McQueen plays an aging rodeo star who travels back to his hometown for its annual Frontier Days celebration. There, he finds his parents (Robert Preston and Ida Lupino) estranged, his father desperately trying to scrape together the money to travel to the still-open territory of Australia, and his brother (Joe Don Baker) using the cowboy image to make himself a millionaire. If The Wild Bunch is about the closing of the West, Junior Bonner is about that closing's aftermath, with the pioneering cowboy spirit reduced and contained within the gaudy spectacle of the rodeo. While Baker and Lupino are ideally cast, McQueen and Preston's relationship forms the heart of the movie. Both give excellent performances that convey the depths their characters hide beneath stoic exteriors. A generally quiet study of a handful of interesting characters, Junior Bonner may be the least Peckinpah-like in content, but it's very much like his other work in spirit. "Quiet" is not a word that accurately describes 1971's Straw Dogs, a queasy thriller set in rural west of England. Dustin Hoffman plays a nebbishy American math scholar who finds his home, his English wife, and his civilized principles threatened by the increasingly aggressive behavior of the natives he's hired to work on his house. A nihilistic film, Straw Dogs presents an appalling world in which humans barely differentiate themselves from animals and violence is sometimes needed to redeem one's soul, as well as a view of rape and gender relations that can at best be called horribly offensive. On the other hand, it's also a thoroughly and arrestingly realized vision, well-staged and well-acted, particularly by Hoffman. Straw Dogs may be unpleasant to watch, and it may suggest a view of the world at odds with all the intangible things most people hold dear, but it's impossible to forget. It's a movie worth hating, but at the same time, it's hard not to admire it in some way. And, like Peckinpah's heroes and his best work—which Straw Dogs is too simple-minded to join—it refuses to compromise.

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