New York academic, David Sumner (Hoffman) and his wife, Amy, relocate to the rural English town where his wife had grown up so that David can work on a book. David is initially excited about the prospect of working in this quiet town, and Amy seems equally happy to be home, albeit with a newfound feminist identity and sense of sexual freedom learned from her years in the States. This “new” Amy immediately catches the eye of her former lover, Charlie (Del Henney). Amy introduces Charlie as an “old friend”, and, extending the proverbial olive branch, David offers Charlie a job finishing the roofing on their garage. Charlie humbly accepts David’s offer, and, no sooner than David ventures out of earshot, wastes no time trying to put the moves on his married ex. David, meanwhile, gets a taste of local politics at the pub when the town’s resident hothead, Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughn), nearly trashes the place because the bartender won’t top off his pint. It is here we see the hierarchy of the village, with Tom serving as something of a ringleader for local miscreants, including Charlie, as well as Charlie’s friend/rival Norman (Ken Hutchison).
The next day, it becomes obvious that David’s new employees have much more than work on their minds. They work slowly, leer at Amy every chance they get, and generally take advantage of David’s meek nature, which ultimately forces Amy to question his manhood. David, however, is so caught up in his (decidedly unmanly) work, and, feeling ignored, Amy begins to act out childishly, sabotaging his research and flirting and teasing the rowdy bunch outside. This comes back to haunt her, however, when Charlie forces himself upon her. What starts out as rape, however, turns into something primal and vaguely consensual. In a controversial scene that still gets talked about more than thirty years after the film’s release, Peckinpah orchestrates an attack in which it is glaringly obvious that the victim is not only allowing it to happen, but enjoying it. Initially it seems she’s going along with it so that she can escape unscathed, but, before long, she’s kissing and caressing Charlie and moaning in ecstasy. Interspersed with the act, we see images of David, as if to symbolize the conflict in Amy’s head. Here we see shots of David as an ineffectual intellectual, but, in flashes, we also see him as the man she imagines is making love to her. It’s a very complex and smartly edited scene that leaves much (perhaps too much) open to interpretation, but, once a shotgun-toting Norman enters the fray and forces Charlie to let him in on the act, there is no longer any doubt that what we are witnessing is a brutal rape.
Amy doesn’t tell David about the attack, but, when he returns after finding himself on the receiving end of a practical joke (the men took him on a “snipe hunt” and abandoned him in the middle of nowhere), David decides to fire them. The confrontation is an uneasy one, but the men accept their dismissal and, to David, this is something of a small moral victory. Things come to a head later, however, when David and Amy, on their way home from a church function, hit the local pariah, Henry Niles (David Warner) with their car. David brings the wounded Henry back to their home to call for the doctor but, unbeknownst to him, the mentally challenged man is suspected of harming a young girl, and Tom Hedden and the boys have organized a lynch mob to take him in. David takes the man into his home to protect him from the mob, and before long, they are under siege, with David fighting off the mob with his wits to protect his wife, the stranger, and his home.
Straw Dogs has long been a favorite of mine. At its core it's a simple siege tale, but Peckinpah's very understated approach during the film's slow and unnerving set-up gives Hoffman and George ample time to develop their characters enough that, by the end, we have a vested interest in their well-being. Both characters undergo huge transformations during the course of the film. Hoffman's David is an arrogant little man – the prototypical “ugly American” who views his rustic new surroundings with a sort of detached bemusement, but, when his cerebral armor is shattered by the brawn of the village ruffians, he goes from befuddled victim to confident protector. Hoffman’s performance captures this transformation beautifully, from his walk and mannerisms to the way he reacts to the brutality he suddenly finds himself capable of. George’s Amy, meanwhile, arrives on the scene a confident and contemporary feminist. She enters the film with her head held high, braless and flaunting sexuality while admiring young local girls follow in her stead. It isn’t long, however, before this strong, worldly woman regresses to small town girl, and, rather than confront her issues head on, waits for her husband to display some backbone and do it for her. While she was once attracted to intelligence and sensitivity, this place brings out her need for protection and strength, something that, in the end, she doesn’t feel she’ll get from David. We see her transformation is complete when, during the siege, she cries out for Charlie’s help rather than her husband’s. The expression on Hoffman’s face when he hears her call out her ex-lover’s name is priceless, and, in that moment, David comes to the grim realization that Amy is no longer the woman he once knew.
Now, back to the question of whether or not Amy enjoyed the rape. It's obvious that Amy flirts with her ex as she grows more and more detached from her husband, and when the rape occurs, she fights until she seems to "give in", and that little glimpse of her face showing a hint of ecstasy does make it appear that, at least for a moment, Amy has found the masculinity her husband lacks in this assault. While this paints Peckinpah as a misogynist in the eyes of many filmgoers, to me it makes perfect sense in a film that is all about primal emotions and actions. David's struggle to be Alpha-Male, Amy's sudden need to feel protected, the village's de-evolution from civilized folks into a torch bearing mob, all of these themes share that primal bond, and to have Amy, a woman whose husband lacks the machismo she craves, give in to, and ultimately find a dark and perverse enjoyment in forced sex from a former lover only seems fitting in this brutal film.
As of this writing, a remake of the film is literally days from debuting in theaters, so MGM has smartly unleashed Straw Dogs on Blu-ray to coincide with the release. This a new high-definition digital transfer of the film, enhanced for widescreen televisions, and it looks quite good. The previous Criterion DVD release of the film looked fantastic, but this new transfer is much sharper and more vibrant with only a few flecks of various artifacts rearing their ugly heads. I did notice that the image became quite grainy at times during the last act, but, thankfully, there weren’t any excessive DNR issues. The mono soundtrack has also been replaced by a very effective 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track that features some potent bass and crisp dialogue, and even manages to wrangle some separation out of the aged track, delivering a few well-placed surround effects. For anyone who’s owned the film in its DVD or VHS incarnations, this track will be quite the revelation.
Unfortunately, MGM was not able to include the myriad extras that the Criterion edition boasted, and only manages a single trailer for the film. Therefore, those lucky enough to have a copy of Criterion’s excellent two-disc set would be wise to hang on to it as the bonus features included there are amongst the finest collection I’ve seen amassed for any film.
Straw Dogs is one of my top ten favorite films of all time, so it goes without say that I wholeheartedly recommend adding this one to your Blu-ray collection. While MGM has skimped on the extras, the new HD transfer and lossless audio track are more than enough reasons to consider this a must-buy!