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My Perception of Violence in “Straw Dogs”

6 04 2011

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner in "Straw Dogs." Copyright 1971 ABC Pictures

* Some spoilers within.

I reviewed this film recently for my place of work’s monthly newsletter after seeing it for a third time.  This, coupled with the fact that a remake from director Rod Lurie will be coming out this year, has propelled me to delve a little deeper into this wonderful character study.  Each time you see a movie like this again, you find things that you didn’t see the first time or with other previous viewings.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it was directed by Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) in 1971 and stars Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.  Narratively, it centers on the character of David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a mild-mannered American mathematician, who has come to rural England to live with his newly wedded English wife, Amy (Susan George), while he works on a book with grant money.  From the beginning, David stands out as an anomaly in his newfound living environment.  He hires several locals who grew up with his wife to help rebuild his garage, which is in a state of disrepair; they laze about, stalk his wife and taunt him with jokes and cruel pranks.

As the story progresses, David and Amy’s relationship becomes more constrained due to David’s research and the pressures that ensue from the vicious taunting of the local townspeople.  Restrained frustration in David’s character builds along with that of the audience who omnisciently see further torture in a controversial scene where Amy is brutally raped by several of the men working on the garage.

The tension and frustration build at a steady pace from the very opening frames of the film and culminate in one of the most shocking, character reversals in film history in which violence is unleashed in David as he defends his home from the townspeople.  The cathartic effect of the final climatic scenes offer an interesting question as to whether the violence was fueled and born in David from his frustrations or if it was always within him from the beginning.

The complexities of character in this film are very deep on many different levels.  The first time I saw the film, I focused more on the fact that David was defending his happy home from these intruders and didn’t pick up on many of the minor nuances in his and Amy’s relationship.  In re-watching the last two times, it’s evident that David and Amy’s relationship itself is quite strained by the climax.  Rather than solely seeing David as this mild-mannered American stereotype, I picked up on many instances where there was a deep passive-agression in his demeanor and reactions.

Several of those scenes that I sensed an underlying violence were with Amy when he was trying to work.  Being bored while he works, she pesters him to a degree, even going so far as to change some of his math problems on his blackboard.  Her reactions frustrate David in several scenes to becoming quite verbally agressive.  It’s through a series of these arguments between David and Amy that we see their relationship become more and more constrained and, in turn, David’s overall demeanor more passive-aggressive.  By the time the rape scene happens, well into the film, Amy and his relationship is almost a spiteful one.

Herein lies one of the biggest points of contentions about the film.  Did Amy welcome this rape?  Well, in my opinion, I would say yes and no.  In the original moments, it is very evident that she doesn’t want the sexual agression of her former boyfriend, Charlie.  Yet, upon insistance, it seems that she actually does welcome it and enjoy the act; largely this seems due to her constrained relationship with David.  The part of the rape sequence that I think brought the scene back into her not wanting the advances is when the second man, Riddaway, comes in to have his way.  This is where the trauma of the rape scene fully sets in and where it is quite evident that she is in distress.

David never finds out about the rape.  His violence that explodes in the final scenes is an internal happening.  It’s as if everyone is against him and the only thing he has is his “home” and the violence that has always lived in him slowly boiling over.  Amy refuses to help fend off the townspeople to the point of him slapping her and restraining her to the upstairs.  This is a man that has been pushed and inched forward slowly to the point of having to turn into an animal.

I think this is evident of us all and that’s what is so powerful about this film.  We all have a level of violence that lives within us as, in reality, we are all animals that work off primal instincts at the most basic level.  It’s our conviction, beliefs and upbringing that separate us from other animal species and give us decency.  Many times we don’t know that this fire lives within us and it’s clear from the final line of the movie when Henry Niles tells David, “I don’t know my way home.”  David responds, “I don’t either” and smiles.  David didn’t know he had that level of violence inside of him; it’s a primal reaction to torture, frustration and defense of what you believe is right.

I’m sure many people will disagree with me, but this is the way I perceive the violence in the film and the characters within.  No matter how you interpret this movie, you will have a strong reaction.  For some it is a violent, repulsive opus from Peckinpah; but to me, it’s a very human film.  It shows us at our worst, our most exposed, or most primal.

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