Sunday, December 25, 2011

Straw Dogs (1971)

Avoiding life's issues can boil over

Revenge films that questioned justice became prevalent in the '70s, though "Straw Dogs" was more than just a simple excuse for vengeance or carnage. The darker side of human nature is no doubt shown from multiple angles but it isn't exploited or all that it has to offer. This drama/thriller is a deep examination of a couple from different backgrounds and personalities who escape to a remote area to get away from the chaos ensuing back where they lived in a more populated area in the States. The logic is to completely avoid a problem before it becomes an issue, but what happens when one gets cornered when there's nowhere left to turn? Wherever any humans dwell, human nature becomes inescapable.

David Sumner is an American academic that recently moved to his wife Amy's original home town called Wakely in England for the perceived quiet country life and to comfortably write a book from teaching mathematics prior. Or so he thinks... Like sheep with a pack of wolves patiently standing by for any shred of weakness or slip up, they're both timid, too polite and passive aggressive in character instead of stating outright what they really feel or mean. Amy desperately wants to be desired by her sometimes aloof husband to the point of acting immature towards him and a tease to a few locals working on their property. One of them is Charlie: a recent hire that was a former love interest of Amy but now a distant reminder to her past. She's at a crossroads of a former loose lifestyle to now trying to settle down. There's a give and take of both sides that adds some struggle and development to her character's flawed but human personality. When she actually realizes the position she's put herself in, it's already too late.

The couple's situation looks fine on the surface but underneath there is an air of animosity creeping up from the moment they arrive. There's a genuine feeling of uncomfortableness portrayed by the performers that carries over to the audience as well the way things never quite settle in. It can be subtle with a sly grin here or a tongue-in-cheek greeting there. The film is gradually paced with enough room for the transitions to feel fluid and the events to steadily and believably escalate to a boiling point of no looking back. How it got to there wasn't just a single situation that can be pinpointed but a series of little unsolved dilemmas that were swept under the rug till a solution would hopefully appear. When one does emerge it looks more like patchwork. The film examines violence and shows some of the causes and effects, then leaves enough breathing area to let the viewer decide if it was justified or not. If David should have spoken up to begin with or put in place preventative measures, only to let it build and build and take a desperate, amoral solution out. Or that David was minding his own business and was only pushed into a primal protective mode by an unruly bunch. There's even some other positions that come about from the experience about his manhood and if it's his wife he's protecting, his ego or the house, or even if he picked the right moment to do so with a questionable town person they took in.

"Straw Dogs" has an equal balance of ambiguity to unravel. The power of the film lies in the direction and script in the way they keep it all together and from getting muddled, despite being filled with multiple layers, not to mention with distinct and purposely flawed situations and characters. There's even enough material and insight to return back and see it from another mode. For one, there's no clear cut so called "good guy" or "bad guy" by the time it comes to a roaring, climactic conclusion. The movie looks at traditional roles of family in the early '70s, while modern outlooks might look more progressive. David picked his corner and stuck to it, which lead to shirking his responsibilities as master of the household. Amy, on the other hand, irrationally craves affection from not having a sense of independence or a feeling of comfortableness in her own skin. Who's right and who's wrong all came down to both their lack of communication and a true sense of togetherness as husband and wife. There's also the slow character in town who can't control himself when it comes to young girls (he's an anomaly in the story in that he's the only person incapable of making a rational decision, while everyone else around is making bad choices left and right), to the prosecutor not doing his job of locking him away, to the family members being outraged and wanting to take their anger and frustration out on someone--anyone--despite their own misgivings and hypocrisies. That theme can be traced back to "Frankenstein" and possibly even further back. It's an intersecting domino effect that eventually gets down to the last connective, tumbling row and piece. Whoever is caught in the vicinity when it falls: Watch out for its wrath!

Rating: 9.5/10

Director: Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughn, Del Henney, David Warner
Link: IMDB

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