David Sumner, the main character in Straw Dogs (1971), comes across as a kind of Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate, (both characters are played by Dustin Hoffman), who’s broken up with Elaine and moved to a small village in Cornwall with his new English girlfriend. He’s the same, mild-mannered, middle-class, preppy city boy — forced into contact with brutish, working-class men from the local English village.
The rural community in Straw Dogs has a thematic similarity to the one depicted in Deliverance; a motley group of perverts, criminals, and weirdos. The village is a close-knit, alien place where everyone knows everyone, where sexual baseness, and violence are normal.
This freakish, impoverished, uneducated and closed-off community provides the same challenge that city protagonist’s face in other rural backwaters, like the ones portrayed in Southern Comfort, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Wicker Man. The locals have a different notion of what it means to be civilised to the protagonist, and us (the audience).
In moving to the countryside, the protagonist leaves behind his or her support network. There’s a feeling of isolation, paranoia and being overwhelmed by savage forces. Like Jack in The Shining, David Sumner only wants one thing; enough peace and quiet to write his book.
The house and village take on a threatening aura, a weirdly charged psychological environment, much like the hotel in The Shining. In both stories we’re tipped that that something terrible will happen. In The Shining we know that the previous caretaker went insane. In Straw Dogs David Sumner has a Chekhovian deer trap placed over the fireplace. (If you make a point of putting a gun over the fireplace… It’s going to get used in the story.)
As the tension and threats increase, David Sumner loses his liberal demeanour, and denial that anything untoward might happen. Like the boys in Lord of the Flies, he reverts back to his basic survival instincts, shedding his polite middle-class demeanour to endorse violence against those who threaten him and the people he’s responsible for.
The attack on the farm house is a retelling of the Old American Western siege story, like The Alamo (which also influenced films like Assault on Precinct 13). The brutal ‘baddies’ (their humanity further suppressed by alcohol) surround the building and attempt to enter and kill those inside.
The film is probably best known for its depiction of violence and a disturbing rape scene. It was classified as a ‘video nasty’, and unavailable for many years. The rape scene is disturbing because it lingers excessively, taking up an unnecessary amount of on-screen time, and it has ambiguous moments where the sex is non-consensual, yet Amy appears to take pleasure from it.
Amy’s sexuality is fraught with issues from the first shot of her (a close up of her breasts in a tight sweater). Her short skirts and tight sweater attracts the ‘wrong’ kind of attention from the local men. She’s an attractive woman, presented as a sexual trophy, an object of desire. This is accentuated by the camerawork, which focuses on her body (from the viewpoint of men mentally undressing her), but it also appears to delight in it. Amy believes that she can dress how she chooses without having to be stared at. She comments that the men might as well ‘lick’ her body the way they’re looking at her, something she’s clearly unhappy about. Her husband, preoccupied with his own problems, and unable to relate to the locals, advises her to dress more modestly.
Straw Dogs is a story of a disintegrating relationship, of mutual blame, and personal alienation in an unfamiliar environment, a place where the locals have different rules. David Sumner feels threatened that the local men know about his wife’s past life, before he met her (this is the same village that she comes from). The film was released in 1971, the year that A Clockwork Orange (which also explores violence and rape), Dirty Harry and The French Connection were released. These films feature male protagonists who behave in a fascist-like manner, arguably wielding unnecessary force. There’s a feeling that disempowerment has caused an enthusiasm for street-justice and revenge vigilantism, a celebration of punishment that personifies Death Wish and Dirty Harry. Unlike the gratuitous offensiveness of The Wild Bunch, the same vibe that Quinten Tarantino later picked up on in Pulp Fiction, Straw Dogs seems more considered and open to interpretation.
Is Straw Dogs a conservative story that celebrates a feminised anti-hero (weak and passive) turning into an all-male hero (strong and active); a metaphor for the replacement of the liberal 1960s with reassuringly traditional values, and patriarchal machismo? Or, is it a story about a woman who feels free to express her sexuality in the way she dresses and behaves, and her innocent exuberance is misinterpreted (by the locals, and her husband), which eventually results in abusive violence against her?
While this is debatable, it does offer enough depth, well observed detail and richness to go beyond the comic-book hero of Dirty Harry and the confused pretentiousness of A Clockwork Orange.