Straw Dogs

D: Sam Peckinpah (1972)
with Susan George, Dustin Hoffman, Peter Vaughan, David Warner

Video cover for Straw Dogs
The poster for Peckinpah’s
Straw Dogs, with its titillating "Banned in the U.K." tag.

In Straw Dogs, nebbishy American mathematician David Sumner (Hoffman) relocates with wife Amy (George) to her hometown in a picturesque, quaint Cornish village. Hoping to leave the hustle and stress of life in the U.S. behind, the scholarly pacifist obtains a grant to work on a very specialized project abroad. The strains in their marriage show almost right away, though; Amy is an immature young woman who is determined to keep bugging her husband for attention while he toils away with equations at his blackboard. Their garage needs work, so David hires a crew of local creeps to repair the roof when they're not pickling their livers at the local pub. The tweed-jacketed thugs drag their feet on the project while ogling his comely wife at every opportunity. Her reputation from her younger, wilder days also precedes her as the locals make crude passes at her. The leering, giggling goons let themselves into the house, strangle the family cat, and hang it in the closet for David to find. As things progress in a very unpleasant scene, Amy is raped by two of the men, one of whom is her old boyfriend (Warner). Among the village types is Henry, a large and disturbed young man who has a predilection for pawing women. Henry accidentally kills the granddaughter of the leader of the bunch; while fleeing, he is run over by David and Amy, who take him into their home until they can call a doctor. The gang converges on the house and lays a Scotch-fueled siege to it in a chaotic, shattering conclusion. Straw Dogs has a clammy sense of tension and menace that builds slowly from the first five minutes or so. The first half or so of the film is spent establishing characters and relationships, but the pace gradually picks up to a downhill-with-no-brakes meter. It is a thoroughly uncomfortable movie with hardly a likable or sympathetic character to be found. Peckinpah seems to make the point that Sixties-style pacifism is really a dead end when savagery is so close beneath the surface of civilized behavior. Wimpy David tries to stand on his hind legs more than once (Hoffman actually does a fine job with the vacillating character) and steer away from trouble until it becomes inevitable at the conclusion. By the end, his stand has less to do with revenge or defending his wife than it does his masculinity and his home. That surely ties into one of Peckinpah's recurring themes: masculine values and their ultimate consequence, a theme that has had him labeled as a misogynist more than once. Straw Dogs drew a fair share of criticism at its release due to its violent content and brutal subtext, one which has not been diminished over the years. To its credit, however, the film uses some great rapid-fire editing and montage techniques; its harrowing, adrenaline-squirting conclusion calls to mind films like Assault on Precinct 13 or The Evil Dead. If The Wild Bunch was Peckinpah's most violent film, surely Straw Dogs has to be his coarsest and most intense. Peace and love? Forget it.

Rolling Thunder

D: John Flynn (1977)
with William Devane, James Best, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes

Rolling Thunder's Ex-Vietnam War POW Major Charles Rane (Devane) returns to a hero's welcome in San Antonio in the early Seventies. He is bestowed with a red Cadillac convertible, $2,500 in silver dollars, and accolades from all sides. Soon, however, he discovers that all is not as it seems; his wife strayed with a close friend during his years of confinement. Rane is so numbed and emotionally sealed off after his years of imprisonment that nothing seems to affect him much; he explains his endurance of torture at the hands of his captors by "learning to love it." He also finds that he has his own personal POW groupie, Linda (Haynes); her fascination with him is met with the same shoulder-shrugging blandness he shows toward everything else in what is left of his life. One day, Rane comes home to find a houseful of Texas white trash demanding his small fortune in silver dollars. Their efforts to beat him into telling the location of the money are for naught, so they jam his hand down a garbage disposal instead. When his wife and kid come home, the two gladly give up the money, but the robbers ruthlessly gun them down anyway. Flash-forward: Rane has himself fitted with a hook prosthesis (which he sharpens on a grinder), cuts down a couple of shotguns and points the scarlet Caddy land yacht south towards Nuevo Laredo, bent on revenge. With Linda in tow, he tracks the bad guys to Acuna and Juarez, where he hooks up with war buddy Johnny (Jones) for a final showdown. The otherwise routine revenge story of Rolling Thunder is given a measure of dimension and depth by Devane's performance and Paul Schrader's script. When not playing a Kennedy of some sort, William Devane often played a psychologically damaged character during the height of his career. He brings the script home with chillingly dead-on accuracy. The comparisons to Schrader scripts such as Taxi Driver are obvious and inevitable. Like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, Rane wears opaque sunglasses that allow no window into his dead soul. However, Bickle's soliloquies are missing; all the audience can see of Rane's character is what is on the surface, only what Rane wants others to see. He is simply a vengeful automaton, riddled with a cold, poisonous, implacable rage. The climactic scene with Johnny and Rane swooping down on a Juarez brothel like a pair of ruthless avenging angels surely rivals the end of Taxi Driver with its cathartic torrent of violence. Nearly all the interior shots have a dingy brownish look to them as the camera follows Rane through a string of seedy bars, motels, and whorehouses. You can nearly smell the burnt cordite and fresh blood in the air as they lend new meaning to the phrase "kicking asses and taking names." Best line: When Rane hooks up with Johnny and informs him of the bad guys' whereabouts, there is a long pause, then, "Well, I'll just get my things then." It is spoken about as casually as if he was being invited on an overnight camping trip.

Straw Dogs and Rolling Thunder: What a gritty, visceral, one-two gut-punch of pandering to the more primal impulses of the viewer. Make 'em a double feature some night when you're up for some guilty pleasures. -- Jerry Renshaw

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