Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Distributed by FremantleMedia Enterprises
Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, FremantleMedia Enterprises invades the UK market with a newly remastered release of Sam Peckinpah’s celebrated, and controversial, classic Straw Dogs. Any cinephile or fan of suspense cinema will likely already be intimately familiar with this tale of slow-burning malice, psychological abuse and, ultimately, explosive violence, but to briefly recap:
Dustin Hoffman stars as American everyman and pacifist mathematician David Sumner who, along with his British wife Amy (George), seeks to escape the soaring rate of violence on US shores by relocating to Amy’s home town back in rural England. As David seeks to complete his current research, he can’t help but notice the sarcastic, goading tone of the locals – especially Amy’s ex-boyfriend and his crew of reprobates. Attempting to ease relations between everyone, David hires the crew to repair the roof of his lodge however his ever-patient pacifism in the face of consistently escalating bullying sees the locals eventually shift their intentions to full-blown victimisation and the physical abuse of his vulnerable wife. David’s situation finally comes to an inevitable head when a lynch mob comprised of Amy’s ex and his drunken pals lay siege to his home in an effort to deliver mob justice to the village simpleton, who has just unwittingly committed the murder of a local girl before stumbling in front of the Sumners’ car. Finally forced to confront the reality of his predicament, David finds himself hurtling into a world of violence more fierce than he could ever have thought possible.
A masterful treatise on the nature of survival, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs remains as relevant today as it ever was. The film’s tonality repeatedly hammers home a stark, critical view of violence against our fellow man, whilst accepting the inevitability of its necessity when circumstances spiral beyond control. As Sumner learns, with an almost fascistic glee in the final act, when push comes to shove you can’t protect everything that’s yours by continuing to allow the brutish to dominate you. Sometimes, hitting back harder is the only option left. Or is it?
It’s a controversial message, doubly so due to the film’s admittedly hypocritical approach to it: while it bleakly condemns the acts of violence and physical and sexual abuse levelled at David and Amy throughout, Straw Dogs then suddenly switches to a thematic rite of passage – an awakening of sorts for David – the road to redemption paved with vicious acts; something which he takes to almost too happily as he decrees, “This is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house. I won’t.” Similarly controversial character moments abound throughout the film, such as the much-censored rape scene in which Amy, forced upon by her ex-boyfriend, appears to be momentarily enjoying the act before one of his lackeys unexpectedly joins in. The cast are excellent across the board throughout, most notably Hoffman in his naturalistic and at times excruciatingly sincere portrayal of a genuinely meek individual pushed far beyond the boundaries of what he believes of normality.
Peckinpah’s direction is knife-edge: Straw Dogs burns with an otherworldly menace from the first scene, with the audience perfectly adapted to the viewpoint of the fish-out-of-water American attempting to function amidst the social unfamiliarity of rural English folk. The slowly unfolding escalation of the Sumners’ victimisation is pervasively uncomfortable — a time bomb set to explode; a volcano just waiting to erupt. Violence in the film, while certainly less gratuitous in the gore department than even some milder modern flicks, remains hard-hitting and no less impactful than it ever has been. So, too, are the moments of shock, with the discovery of the couples’ missing cat still managing to elicit startled gasps.
Whether or not you agree with what it has to say, Straw Dogs is essential viewing for anyone interested in cinema. Taught, suspenseful, and pulsing with threat; masterfully acted and directed, and with a siege finale straight out of the Western genre, this is one movie that easily deserves its classic status.
Most important here is the presentation of the FremantleMedia Enterprise’s release: Is it worth upgrading your current DVD to some high definition goods? Well, unfortunately… not really. The picture, while sporting a more distinctly filmic look and sounder flesh tones than previous waxy UK DVD releases is quite horrifically overblown in terms of contrast. This is much to the detriment of fine detail and texture, though thankfully the print hasn’t been post-processed to death in an effort to clear grain. Some scenes are also incredibly soft, while darker moments during the climactic siege teeter on the verge of becoming a visually indecipherable smudge amidst the contrast-blown detail lost in the shadows. It’s really quite shocking, and the special feature on the disc providing side-by-side comparisons of the old and remastered editions reaffirms the notion that there isn’t a hell of a lot of improvement to be lauded here.
Speaking of special features, this disc is absolutely loaded with them. On the negative side, they’re pretty much all historical extras that have appeared on previous DVD releases. The rest are entirely text supplements, which you’ll simply sit on your couch and read. That’s not to be ungrateful, as honestly there’s more packed into this release than you could ever possibly need. Two separate commentaries offer a ridiculous amount of insight into the life and work of Sam Peckinpah – essential for anyone interested in the man’s career – and many of the written materials are a hoot – for example Peckinpah’s correspondence with Harold Pinter, and producer Dan Melnick’s letters to (and from) the BBFC. That’s not to mention the knee-slappingly hilarious Consider this a Bad Review excerpt.
The wealth of special features aside, one would assume the main draw here is going to be the advantage of having a classic film available amongst your collection in high definition. The transfer here, however, simply doesn’t cut it; in fact, it’s in many ways worse than currently available DVD versions. On that side of things, consider this a bad review.
4 1/2 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5