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Straw Dogs (1971): The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // June 27, 2017
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted June 25, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Few who have seen Sam Peckinpah's obstinately challenging Straw Dogs can forget the first time they did so. Granted, that's a distinction which falls on many of the director's works, but his subversive portrait of sex-driven power struggles and pent-up desire -- an adaptation of Gordon Williams' novel "The Siege of Trencher's Farm" -- does it in ways unlike his others. Some of it resides in his signature brand of violence, sure, brutally lavish yet keen on the scenes' geography and tolerance level for realism, while some of it comes from the wide-eyed, emotionally candid performances he generates from his leads. Then, there's the message of pacifism and breaking points spiked inside its symbolic posturing, which touches on the rebellious effects that the Vietnam War has on the era's youth. All good reasons, yet they don't compare to one particular hard-to-watch scene of carnal ambiguity, which truly punctuates the film's tenacity. You'll get wrapped up in the violence that ensues, but you won't be able to shake that from your mind.

An American astrophysicist, David (Dustin Hoffman), moves with his English wife Amy (Susan George) to her home village in the outskirts of England's moors, mostly so he can conduct his mathematical research away from the protests -- and drafts -- of the Vietnam War. The two seem like a highly unlikely couple; David's a stilted, mild-mannered, knowledge-rooted introvert who's concerned only with his work, while his braless wife flirts and saunters like a flippant teenager around the bucolic cottage they've moved to. And if David's not receptive to her advances, she has a tendency of diverting her attention to those around her. In this case, that includes a cluster of local carpenters working on the cottage's roof, one of which is an old flame of Susan's. As David's uncomfortable not-so-masculine persona begins to wear on the local boys, they begin mildly tormenting him, while also taking his passive nature as a gateway to zero in on Amy. While harmless at first, the tension among them escalates beyond control.

The swell of negative energy in Straw Dogs becomes its paramount driver, which Peckinpah constructs as a steady conflict of strength over gender, sexual energy, and a contorted sense of gruff countryside patriotism. He actively renders every character unlikable in the process, even -- and especially -- the underdog David. Coming off his transitional performance in Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman brings a controlled energy to the mathematician that hits a credible balance between masculine inferiority and infuriating social awkwardness, which accomplishes the difficult task in making a weak, nerdy man someone whom we won't readily sympathize with. When he's weaving around Amy's bottled-up sexual appetite (while also showing disdain for her cat) and pacifistically handling the scheming construction workers with beer and forced jollity, his poise gives off a seditious energy that's easy to see as a catalyst to the events that transpire. Not a justification, of course, but a comprehendible origin.

Straw Dogs boils at a steady pace -- both cinematically and thematically -- right up to its culmination point: the rape sequence, which earned Peckinpah an X-rating in the US and a full-on ban in England for its lurid context. By today's standards, the amount of skin or sexuality or even abrasiveness might not be enough to taper the film towards such a rating; however, the ambiguous implications stirring in the sequence -- in Amy's motives, her disposition, and her previous teasing actions feeding into this occurrence -- might still be. A mix of her terror and uncomfortable pleasure complicate the scene into a lengthy stretch of intensely-photographed claustrophobia where we're cringing at the varied emotions on her face, at whether the neglected wife actually finds joy and pleasure in being forcibly taken ... and whether it's something she actually wants. It's not an easy scene to watch and reflects heavily on a controversially-skewed viewpoint on rape, which leaves a raw feeling that lingers long after it's done.

Peckinpah's follow-through erupts in a violent cataclysm that only he could properly orchestrate, transforming the last act into a relentless, chilling home invasion scene that racks those already jittery in the audience with intense stylized violence, involving hot oil, nail guns, and bear traps. While it appears to be the emergence of David's hubris and masculinity on the surface, alongside the clear end of his rope, it's also, within the context of one of the film's subplots, a metaphor for the opposition to the Vietnam War, and for the general perception of participating in conflicts which people aren't directly involved in. While watching David shake his head and wield a shotgun at his foes as he interjects in a situation, he's gallantly fighting for a cause that he -- or anyone else, for that matter, aside from the audience -- has little to no clarity on. Straw Dogs is all about perception and the exertion of dominance while surrounded by conflicting factors, and few films are comparable in terms of moral ambiguity.

Note: Film Review from 2011 Coverage of MGM's Straw Dogs Blu-ray: Review Here.

The Blu-ray:

Straw Dogs has a long and complicated history of getting released in its complete form both in theaters and on home-video, but we've finally reached a point where that isn't a concern, as each release of Sam Peckinpah's film on the Blu-ray format has been his intended unedited cut. Once the source of the definitive release of this film on DVD -- their out-of-print, two-disc presentation of the untampered cut was, for a time, one of those must-find items for aficionados and collectors -- The Criterion Collection have brought Straw Dogs back into their collection as re-released Spine #182. Revamped, yet familiar artwork featuring Dustin Hoffman and his broken glasses adorns the front cover, while an intimate, somber still of Susan George is revealed upon the enclosed Booklet, which includes information about the transfer, production credits, and a pair of text-based extras that appeared in the previous DVD booklet: "Home Like No Place", by Joshua Clover; and "The Cinema of Sam Peckinpah", an interview with the director conducted by Andre Leroux.

Video and Audio:

MGM's Blu-ray for Straw Dogs from a few years back was a tolerable representation of Sam Peckinpah's dark, often gritty visual aims, but this new remaster from The Criterion Collection reveals precisely how desperately the film needed some further renovation. While retaining the heavy English-country visual essence -- rich browns, greens, and grays inside rough-hewn textures -- this 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC representation of the 4K scan lures stronger colors from underlying elements and a cleaner, less artificial handling of details. Skin tones, as well as Susan George's blonde locks, are given more natural warmth and depth than seen previously, while grassy greens and earthy creams/tans appear more appropriately vivid. It's a darker image, and that's largely a good thing, allowing the shadows within the farmhouse and the sunlight intensity to more organically adapt to their surroundings. Perhaps the most impressive refinement comes in the precence of grain, which, despite one or two noisier-than-necessary sequences due to compression, grasp onto the true film texture much better than previous iterations. Details are strong in garments, black levels are heavy -- by design -- yet reputable in tandem with the image, and the cleanness of the print and the respect paid to depth-of-field produce a marvelous restoration.

The Criterion Collection keeps it simpler on the audio side of Straw Dogs, evading a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track in pursuit of an authentic monaural uncompressed sound presentation, derived from the film's original 35mm magnetic track. Even with this new remastering, there's no avoiding the film's inherent vintage presence, which gives certain sound effects and dialogue a degree of thinness and strain. Taking that into consideration, there's a fine degree of natural heft to dialogue that helps the atmosphere of conversation in and around the couple's farmhouse, presenting itself in the flapping of birds' wings and revving of motor engines. Gunshots have a moderate amount of low-end punch to them, yet aren't as vigorous as they likely could be, while the honks of a bicycle horn and the giggles of a madman in the night air spread across the front channels. The stillness and lack of distortion in quieter sequences is impressive, though, free of hissing and blips during the many sequences where conversations can linger in silence until someone responds.

Special Features:

The Criterion Collection's original two-disc DVD edition of Straw Dogs could be classified as a comprehensive and engaging package in terms of extras, and that sentiment carries over to their Blu-ray, which duplicates most of the extras from that presentation while adding a few new goodies. Carried over from Criterion's previous edition, a scholarly Commentary with Author Stephen Prince begins with an admission: that he believes Straw Dogs to be Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece and that it's improperly reviled by critics and historians, and that his objective for this commentary would be to set the record straight. By examining filmmaking techniques and dissecting misconceptions, Prince offers a highly-analytical and scene-progressive look at the style, violence, and sexual dynamics at work, digging into relevant production details and not shying away from tackling other opinions. Prince delivers his comments with clarity, enthusiasm, and accessibility, which makes this an essential and understandably duplicated track.

Also carried over from the previous Criterion package, the feature-length documentary on Sam Peckinpah entitled Man of Iron (1:34:16, 16x9 HD) takes a leisurely yet thorough look at the hard-living director and the myths behind his persona, spicing together interviews, archival photos, and clips from his films in the process. A stretch of Behind the Scenes Footage (7:40, 4x3) offers a peek at what set life was like while a sharply-dressed interviewer tries to make the rounds between the cast and crew; there are lengthy silent gaps, due to the absence of recorded material. The pair of Interviews with actress Susan George (20:57, 16x9 HD) and producer Daniel Melnick (19:04, 16x9 HD) have also been included, and while they fall inline with Criterion's familiar structure despite being recorded -- sigh -- fifteen years prior, they've also been updated with crisper footage and photos. They've also included the original Theatrical Trailer (1:43, 16x9) and trio of TV Spots.

The folks at Criterion didn't just duplicate the extras from the prior release, though; worth noting that they also dropped an extra or two, the On Location: Dustin Hoffman and Peckinpah Responds pieces. They've also included a few new interviews, as well: one has been recently recorded with editor Roger Spottiswoode (35:53, 16x9 HD), who offers some sharp insights into how Peckinpah exerted his degrees of control and reactionary behavior onto the creative process, and another recent one, A Controversial Classic (26:54, 16x9 HD) -- though it'd probably classify more as a visual essay than an interview -- centers on Linda Williams discussing the controversial and provocative elements involved with the film. Another "new" one features author Garner Simmons (9:57, 16x9 HD), but that includes footage recorded in 2002. Furthermore, and perhaps most noteworthy, they've included Mantrap: Straw Dogs The Final Cut (52:08, 16x9 HD), a near feature-length TV documentary crafted in 2003 that's dedicated solely to this film, which features candid interview stretches with Dustin Hoffman and other cast members as presenter Mark Kermode guides the discussion with the actual farmhouse behind him.

Final Thoughts:

The unflinching, deliberately off-putting energy of Straw Dogs hasn't lost its firepower over the course of forty-plus years, as it still taps into relevant and unsettling issues of masculinity, sexuality, and violent insularity. The unlikable nature of the characters can be both the film's detracting feature --- often, they seem deliberately and insistently so -- and a testament to the complexity of the material and the rawness of the performances, which accelerates through pompous male posturing and uncontrollable desire into the perils of defending one's home under duress. It's never going to be an easy or terribly enjoyable film to watch, but Peckinpah designed this thing to rattle cages and provoke the senses in unpleasant ways, and it's rather masterful at doing so. Y'know that Criterion Blu-ray edition I suggested might be coming "some time in the near future" whilst reviewing MGM's initial release? Well, "near" might not have been very accurate, but it finally arrives, five years layer, and thoroughly trounces the prior disc both in visual potency through its 4K remastering and its trove of extras both old and new. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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