Thursday, 24 December 2015

Straw Dogs (1971)

This film does some interesting and unusual things, which is why it has a qualified recommendation, but it is really, really, really qualified.  It's not a happy or comfortable film in any way, and while the violence of the climactic sequence has lost a lot of its shock value in the 40+ years since it was made, there's a two-part sexual assault scene in the middle that is deeply controversial and in my opinion deeply problematic.

David and Amy Sumner have rented a farmhouse in the English countryside.  Amy has roots in the area, but her husband is an American academic, who fits in poorly amidst the earthy locals.  Compounding this awkwardness is a strong sense that all is not well in their marriage.  They obviously feel passion for each other but Amy is contemptuous of David's work and of his lack of ability with tools, while David for his part clearly considers his wife to be intellectually inferior.  This tension - as well as mounting frustration and fear stemming from the ever more confrontational antics of the local men - will ultimately explode in the film's final act.

There are good performances here, and some thought-provoking elements to the film.  It's certainly not a "revenge fantasy" film like you might expect.  The situation where the heretofore diffident David is finally pushed too far is completely tangential to most of what has come before, and has little personally to do with either him or his wife.  We the audience know that Amy was raped by two of the men with whom David will engage in a savage battle, but David himself has no idea that happened.  He's simply - as the tag line says - reached his breaking point.  There's no sense of triumph when the dust finally settles.  He and Amy do not cling to each other, their relationship restored by the ordeal they've endured.  There's a sense of numb relief, but not much more.

This is a confronting and uncomfortable film and I share many of the misgivings that others have over the years raised about the rape scene near the middle, but it is interesting to see a film that so thoroughly usurps many of the expected story beats.  Worth a look if you're in the mood for something stark.  Make sure you get the original though, as the 2011 remake appears to have eliminated much of the complexity that makes the film interesting despite its profound issues.

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