When people think of Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch is almost always the first film to spring to mind or to be mentioned. No doubt, it's a great film. One of the manliest movies ever made and chock to the brim with action, violence and intensity though not without and underlying message and pseudo social conscience. I'm not sure it's his best film though. Straw Dogs might just be better. It's a tough call, and I reserve the right to change my mind at the drop of a hat, but Straw Dogs so perfectly represents so much of what Peckinpah had to deal with in his personal life and does it in such a way that it works in spite of itself.
Dustin Hoffman plays David Summer, a nerdy American mathematician who has moved to a small English town with his wife Amy (the lovely Susan George), who grew up in the area. They hope to be able to get away from it all, and live a quiet and productive life together in their new home. When some of the local men begin to take up an interest in David's pretty young bride, tensions arise though his pacifist tendencies basically give them carte blanche to raise Hell and soon enough, Amy ends up being raped by them in what is arguably the most controversial scene that Peckinpah ever filmed. Summer is finally angered enough to stand up for himself and his wife, and a grisly culmination ensues.
While on the surface it may sound like a trashy rape/revenge film, Straw Dogs has a whole lot more going on under the surface than most of its sub genre counterparts. Less about the actual rape and more about the effects it has and the subsequent breaking point of the film's male lead, Straw Dogs is hardly just simple exploitation fare. The film raises all manner or moral issues in regards not only to the rapist thugs, but more so towards David's characterizations and his actions. What makes him hit his breaking point? Is it the fact that his wife was violated or the fact that she might have enjoyed it (it is for this reason that the uncut version of the film was refused classification by the BBFC until 2002)? He could have prevented it if he'd acted sooner but he was too caught up in his own politics to do so, despite some very obvious warning signs. Given that, when he ultimately does stand up to them during the films dark and bloody conclusion, is he standing up for the woman he loves and doing so out of nobility or is he simply angered enough that one of his prize possessions has been taken from him and that his pride has been broken? The film becomes even more interesting when you take into account the director's personal life. Obviously a man who had issues with women throughout his life, Peckinpah lived under the oppressive influence of his mother his entire life, all the while striving to be a 'man's man' so to speak. It's not too far a stretch to say there is a bit of the director in Hoffman's character.
Aside from that, the film is full of tension. In typical Peckinpah style, it all leads up to an inevitably ugly conclusion. We know that the showdown is going to occur – it almost has to for David to redeem himself – but (unless you've seen the film before, obviously) we don't know how it's all going to go down. The last fifteen minutes of the film are intense, violent, and frightening – true edge of your seat material.
Regular Peckinpah cinematographer John Coquillon (who also worked with him on Cross Of Iron, The Osterman Weekend and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid) ensures that the film effectively captures the tranquility of the locale on which it was shot, and cross references it in a sense against the acts of brutality enacted on the screen. The camera leaves little to the imagination, making certain scenes rather uncomfortable to watch, but then again, that's the point.
MGM's anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer looks almost identical to the Criterion Collection transfer, save for a slight bit more edge enhancement here than on the Criterion release. The image is clean and sharp and free of debris aside from the odd speck of print damage that appears every once in a while. Colors look natural and lifelike and the black levels are deep and solid. This is a very nice, natural looking and well rendered transfer that brings the detail and depth of the cinematography out nicely.
The Dolby Digital Mono track sounds like a mono track. There's not much in the way of fidelity going on in the mix and at times it does sound a little bit flat. Again, quality is comparable to the Criterion Collection release. Dialogue is clean and clear and easy to understand but doesn't sound as warm or natural as other tracks I've heard. It's not bad, it's just not perfect. MGM has also supplied subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
Sadly, MGM has loaded this disc with nothing at all, not even a trailer.
Well if you don't already have the Criterion release, this is a nice looking and affordable way to acquaint yourself with one of Sam Peckinpah's best films. The transfer is great, the audio gets the job done, and the movie holds up really well and despite the lack of any extra features whatsoever, Straw Dogs comes highly recommended based on the strength of the film alone.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.