I’ve never found it in any rental place, so I saw it on youku through alluc. If you haven’t seen it, this gives a pretty thorough explanation. This is my third Peckinpah movie, with the first two being The Wild Bunch and Cross of Iron. There’ll be some spoilers below, so I’m putting the rest below the fold.

The movie is pretty controversial and was apparently banned in some places. The big controversy seems to be over the rape scene(s?). What made it so controversial was the impression that Susan George’s character, Amy Sumner, despite initial protests comes to accept her ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner’s advances and even enjoys it, with some people claiming it (or at least at first, as what follows is completely unambiguous) is ambiguous as rape vs with consent. My interpretation was that it was clearly rape and Amy’s state ranges from distraught crying to pleading with some resignation mixed in. Part of my view may simply be due to starting with a sensible default and then requiring extraordinary evidence for an extraordinary claim rather than reaching for a more fantastic interpretation, which is the real purpose of art criticism. What complicates things is that there is clearly affection between the two, with Charlie apologizing for his actions even as he uses violence against her and later on protecting her from his friend Norman Scutt though he had previously assisted him in an even more vicious rape of Amy. It was an interesting touch to never have her husband David (played by Dustin Hoffman) never find out about that incident and continue believing that their snubbing him on a duck-hunt was the extent of their malevolence that day. It lends a different tone to the finale, where he is calm more than angry and derives a kind of enjoyment in violence that is more about asserting himself after being a push-over than avenging his wife.

It is a bit ironic that the cause of his violent stand against the local Cornish rednecks is defence of a man guilty of killing a little girl. I found that bit a bit too obvious a rip-off of Mice and Men, but not until I began writing this post did I note the resemblance to Fritz Lang’s “M: The Story of a Murderer” and its stand with due process of a law rather than mob justice for child-murderers. As I watched it I pondered the utilitarian case for handing over Henry Niles even if we deem him innocent by reason of his mental faculties (something I am not given to) as preferable to the deaths of the mob coming after him. The next thought that immediately came to me was that I wanted Charlie and Norman to die for the above, and the old drunk Tom Heddon to get his for killing Major John Scott. What complicates things from the perspective of the previous link is that without Amy telling what they’ve done Charlie’s death cannot be seen as punishment for his act and hence do not serve as a deterrent (Scutt is killed by Charlie after attacking Amy a second time and Tom accidentally shoots his own foot while breaking in, plus his killing of the Major is acknowledged by David previously).

Another theory I’ve heard is that ultimately rather than siding with David, the finale is an indictment of him for betraying his pacifist principles. That doesn’t ring true to me either, as David never displays any such principles and merely tries to avoid trouble most of the time. His character does not seem to be a completely good guy, but on the whole sympathetic if you don’t have a disliking for the average man, which Peckinpah may in fact have had. The parallels to Western movies (the genre which Peckinpah is best known for) are obvious despite its location, and despite the hoopla over the revisionist Westerns of the time, David seems more honorable in his violence than the asshole John Wayne in The Searchers.

If the Wild Bunch was supposed to be a reflection of the violence in Vietnam, Straw Dogs is supposed to reflect the violence occurring in America in the 60s and specifically references attacks on blacks as well as campus unrest (which is supposed to be the cause of David and Amy leaving the academy for the countryside an ocean away). Though this was supposed to be common in the movies of that era, my impression growing up of what the 60s were supposed to be like was one of peaceful hippies playing Merry Pranks on the squares or whatnot. I think the first hint I got of the “Great Sixties Freakout” was in the crime section in Freakonomics (which incidentally also led me to Sailer and my section of the blogosphere). I had heard of the Klan (and their public official allies like Bull Connor) causing trouble for the Civil Rights movement in the South, though I didn’t know about things like the Greensboro massacre and FBI action against the Klan. It was also quite a while before I heard of the controversy over bussing in Northern neighborhoods and folks like the Weathermen and Symbionese Liberation Army, as well as the surge in riots (mostly outside of former Confederate territory). This article has a pretty good take on our warped perspective of the 60s today. That isn’t just limited to times before I was born. I grew up in the 90s associating Eastern Europe with the joyous liberation from communism (though Russia itself was rather screwed up under Yeltsin), at least outside of Bosnia. It wasn’t until about the time Steve found out about SAIC that I heard in 97 Albania erupted in violence due to failed Ponzi schemes with thousands of people dying and seized military armaments being used against the government before the opposition took over (Sali Berisha is in charge again and still screwing things up).

On a final note, shortly before I watched Straw Dogs I viewed Natural Born Killers. Quite a contrast, despite the shared controversial violence. Oliver Stone was clearly doing way too much drugs as he made that movie and it is laughably hypocritical to denounce The Media (personified by Robert Downey Jr. with an Australian accent) for glorifying violence when he does the exact same thing himself with that movie. A much better take on that is Network, which is more clearly than Straw Dogs about the Great Freakout and later malaise.