I had long heard the 1971 Dustin Hoffman thriller “Straw Dogs” referred to as a classic (that is actually how it is categorized by Netflix) and it was considered by many to be a profound statement on the undercurrent of violence that permeates modern society. It has generally been adored by critics and the public as a “masterpiece” that was far ahead of its time. Since I respectfully disagree with this analysis, there is always the possibility that I posses neither the intelligence nor the artistic vision to appreciate this landmark cinematic achievement.
The movie is set in the fictional English town of Wakely, where American mathematician David (Hoffman) has recently moved with his young English wife Amy (Susan George). From best I can tell, the town is populated by violent alcoholics, their unsupervised children, and one registered sex-offender named Henry. Several of the aforementioned violent alcoholics have been hired by David to install a roof on his garage while providing intermittent pest control in the house.
As the movie progresses, we are informed that Amy used to live in Wakely and had a previous sexual relationship with one of the handymen named Charlie. As David and Amy’s marriage deteriorates, David finds himself ostracized from the community at large and berated by his wife for his handling of several unprofessional incidents perpetrated by said workmen:
1. Several blatantly hit on her in front of her husband.2. One steals a pair of her underwear.3. They attempt to run David off the road while leaving the worksite.4. They break into the couple’s bedroom and strangle their cat.
Then, the workmen invite David to go pheasant hunting where he is abandoned while they double back and gang-rape his wife. She, presumably due to David’s ineffectual handling of the feline strangulation incident, decides not to mention this development to her husband and continues to suffer in silence as their marriage deteriorates.
The film’s climax occurs when the town’s populace attends a church social where “Creeper Henry” wanders off with the teenage sibling of one of the workers and accidentally strangles her. David hits Henry with his car and carries him back home where the couple is confronted by the angry alcoholic-rapist-craftsmen who wish to apply vigilante justice. This sets up the last half hour of the film where previously mild-mannered David gravely announces that he will not “allow violence against his house” then proceeds to beat the bejesus out any Englishmen who attempt to enter his dwelling uninvited.
The movie ends after David partially decapitates one of the aggressors with an antique bear trap and calmly loads “Creeper Henry” into his car to drive him home. Since Amy never reveals the rape to David, we are left with the impression that David’s animosity toward the men he has killed stems from either their unforgivably-rude entry into his home or their sub-par craftsmanship on his garage. We are given no resolution concerning David’s marriage, the murdered girl, or the half-dozen dead bodies reducing the resale value of David’s property.
I believe what bothered me most about this film was the complete absence of rational thought. Let’s start with David. He leaves America to move back to the tiny English village where his wife lived briefly before they met but where she has no further ties except for ex-lovers. He hires and continues to employ local construction workers who he is essentially paying to hit on his wife each and every time she returns from running an errand. As an added bonus, their progress is further slowed by their penchant for panty-snatching and house-pet execution all of which only serves to diminish David’s manhood in the eyes of his spouse. This, by itself, is incapable of ruffling David’s feathers but God help the fool who thinks he is about to waltz in and manhandle the prime suspect in an Amber Alert.
Now I realize that they did not have Angie’s List in the early 70’s, but would it really have been that hard to find another roofer? It seems to me that David would have had a pretty solid case to switch contractors (what with the sexual harassment and cat garroting) which would have prevented this entire scenario.
Amy, who continually admonishes her husband for trivializing her concerns about the worker’s intentions, walks topless around open windows and gets out of her car like she’s straddling a canoe. Despite being both unemployed and native to the area, she cannot seem to find the spare time to peruse the Better Business Bureau listing to locate a day laborer she hasn’t slept with. In fact, it appears that her only function in the narrative was to spend the money generated by the man she has lost all respect for while resolutely avoiding bras.
The film was banned for decades in the UK for both its violent content and the rape sequence that many felt glorified the violent act and even made it appear consensual. I felt the most offensive aspect of the film was its portrayal of women. The town had only three of them (at least that appear on camera) and 2/3 of them ultimately become the victim of violent felonies. The only woman who escapes this fate is married to the preacher and remains silent when on-screen.
If this movie is a classic, someone owes The Godfather, On The Waterfront, and Vertigo an apology.
This film was rated R for misguided selection of a sub-contractor, indefensible application of the “Castle Doctrine” and one cringe-inducing slow-motion scene of Dustin Hoffman bludgeoning someone to death in his veranda.