Straw Dogs

In the "Correspondence" supplement to the superb two-disc DVD of Sam Peckinpah's polarizing 1971 masterpiece Straw Dogs, the director delivers a telling response to an irate male viewer: "I didn't want you to enjoy the film. I wanted you to look very close at your own soul." Shot through with all the technical bravado of his groundbreaking anti-Western The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs may be the purest statement on violence in Peckinpah's career, with implications so disturbing that critic Pauline Kael once famously dubbed it "a fascist classic." Stepping away from the Western genre for the first time, Peckinpah directly confronts the violence at the heart of masculinity; as his response to the letter-writer implies, he wanted men to consider the unsettling extent to which it defines their actions. To that end, he cast Dustin Hoffman as the ultimate passive-aggressive wimp, a bespectacled American mathematician who shrinks from conflict at every turn, until a climactic home invasion finally summons his manhood. Hoping to repair their fraying marriage, Hoffman and his beautiful English wife (Susan George) move to her former home, a seemingly quaint Cornish village that pulses with alarming savagery under the surface. Hoffman's quiet contempt for George and the vulgar, snickering locals working on their garage incites tragic consequences, culminating in George's rape by former lover Del Henney and his crony. On the surface, this infamous scene plays out like an indefensible rape fantasy, as George's initial horror melts briefly and shockingly into ecstasy, suggesting a primal response to a man more powerful than her husband. But as film scholar Stephen Prince argues on his insightful commentary track, the scene is a little more ambiguous than it appears, complicated by George's romantic history and her dissatisfaction with Hoffman, who arguably holds her in dimmer regard than the rapist. Peckinpah treads an extremely fine line, but it's a credit to his skill and George's brave, harrowing performance that the film never underplays her violation, which gives the bloody showdown that follows a powerful current of tension and subtext. When Hoffman finally defends his castle, Peckinpah unleashes the full brunt of his disorienting slow-motion and montage effects from The Wild Bunch, but removed from the Western's shoot-'em-up conventions, the violence seems more disquieting and real. Though many still write off the film's macho philosophy as distasteful or silly, the DVD supplements help clear up some common misperceptions. Audiences who knew Hoffman from Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate were used to seeing him as a put-upon hero, but Prince's commentary and Peckinpah's notes cast him as Straw Dogs' heavy, a man whose hidden aggression triggers all of the film's bloody tragedies. Also included on the discs is the solid 82-minute talking-head documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man Of Iron, a pair of crude behind-the-scenes featurettes, and new interviews with George and producer Daniel Melnick that testify to the director's volatile genius. Though studio interference and his own personal demons hampered his later work, Straw Dogs shows a master in control of his effects, which made an artist of Peckinpah's sensibility an especially dangerous man.

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