Straw Dogs Blu-ray Review

1971’s Straw Dogs reminds us that there’s more than one kind of impotence that can make a man small and helpless.

Fear can render a man impotent. It isn’t necessarily the fear of being hurt or the fear of failure that director Sam Peckinpah’s film examines, however. Those are fears that can be overcome with action.

But the fear of acting at all is a more difficult one to grapple with. And it’s that fear that the film forces us to confront.

Straw Dogs tells the story of David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), an American mathematician who has moved with his wife, Amy (Susan George), to her home town in England. It’s a town full of hard laborers and hard drinkers; David immediately sticks out like a sore thumb, highlighting from the onset one source of his many insecurities.

To make matters more emasculating for him, David hires Charlie (Del Henney), an old flame of Amy’s, to fix the roof of his garage. As the film progresses, Charlie and his shifty cohorts quietly but powerfully contest David’s manhood at every turn, going so far as to kill Amy’s cat and leave it hanging from a light fixture.

This development certainly frightens David, but not in a manner in which you’d expect. There’s a beautifully-played scene where David outwardly promises to Amy to confront his tormentors (“I’m gonna catch them off-guard!”) only to invite them into the house and later accompany them on a hunting expedition.

Again, David’s greatest fear is being forced to act. Hoffman performs brilliantly in swallowing his humiliation, which goes on at great length; Hoffman plays David as timid and completely void of any will to provoke until the film’s third act is well underway. It’s a slow burn that both Hoffman and director Peckinpah execute flawlessly.

Eventually, David’s failure to act leads to Charlie and another of his buddies brutally raping Amy. It’s a haunting, horrific scene, and Peckinpah makes us watch all of it. Even 40 years after audiences saw it for the first time, the rape scene is incredibly difficult to watch; Susan George masterfully enables the audience to experience the ordeal, whether it wants to or not.

It’s the first time in the film that Peckinpah, through Amy, forces the viewer to live his characters’ pain; it is slow, graphic, and unflinching, and it’s far too real to be forced to bear. And yet Peckinpah makes us bear it anyway.

The film reaches its climax when David and Amy are forced to shelter the town pedophile, Henry Niles (David Warner), only a short time after Niles killed the daughter of the town’s resident loudmouth drunk, Tom.

Tom enlists the aid of Charlie and his pals and lays siege to David’s house, leaving him no choice but to (finally) act.

The final act (along with the rape scene) is primarily what the film is remembered for, and something that garnered the picture a lot of attention at the time of its release. It’s unrelenting in its brutality and made all the more surprising and (to some degree) satisfying considering Hoffman’s immediate transformation from impotent loser to primal enforcer.

Peckinpah’s vision reminds us that even the most “civilized” of creatures becomes an animal when threatened.

While the scene is regarded for the bloody booby traps David arranges (who knew having a wife that collects antique bear traps could pay off with such dividends?), it’s the smaller moments that give the scene its true impact.

At one point during the siege, Amy is desperate to give the intruders what they want. David quietly but intensely snaps at his wife by striking her and threatening to break her neck. He never raises his voice. His face never becomes red.

But in this moment, it’s clear that David, a scholarly, intelligent, civilized man, wants blood; he’d rather it come from the attackers, but he’ll settle for the blood of anyone trying to stop him from protecting his home – wife or not.

But enough about the explosion of violence. Back to the slow burn.

Peckinpah is a master of crafting a story, and his methods are simple and practical in nature.

The aforementioned bear trap is introduced in the very first scene, and it isn’t mentioned at all from the beginning of the second act until its gruesome use in the final showdown.

There is what seems to be throwaway dialogue about the cat routinely going missing within the film’s first 10 minutes. It’s subtle and easy to brush off at first, but it comes back to haunt in a big, bad way when the cat is discovered, minus its nine lives.

Even the characterization of David as a weak and cowardly fellow, though it’s put front and center, is handled in an almost sleight-of-hand manner. Consider early in the film when David is asked for his opinion about the strife back in the states.

Despite being literally thousands of miles from the anti-war movement and civil rights demonstrations, David dodges the question, too afraid to take a stand on either side.

Peckinpah makes us wait for nearly an hour-and-a-half for David to finally man up. He also makes it more than worth it when David finally does.

High-Def Presentation

The Blu-ray presentation isn’t pristine, which is to be expected from a film released four decades ago. For the most part, though, the MPEG 4-encoded AVC 1080p picture looks pretty good. All of the images are probably as sharp as they could possibly be; at no point does anything appear to be soft or amorphous, even when fog becomes a factor in outdoor scenes later in the movie. And although the transfer is good, there’s a nagging feeling in the back of my head that it could – no, should – have been much better.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is quite good as well. Again, while I realize the action-packed finale is what most viewers remember and want to see, it’s the dialogue in the lead-up to the climax that makes Straw Dogs pop to life, and it’s presented very clearly on this MGM release.

However, it’d be impossible not to note how important sound truly is to the climax, and this Blu-ray release allows for every sound during the final showdown to come to brilliant, stirring life. There’s nothing fancy about the engineering of the gunshots or shattering glass; they’re loud and bulky and frightening, as they should be.

All-in-all, both the picture and sound are remarkably apropos to the material and only enhance the tension and overall mood of Straw Dogs.

Beyond the Feature

Not much to write home about here.

Whereas the two-disc DVD release from Criterion offered a veritable plethora of bonus features, MGM’s Blu-ray release offers only three TV ads and a Theatrical Trailer.

While it might not be fair to judge what isn’t included on the disc, Straw Dogs seems an important enough film to include at least some extras. As it is, it hits shelves strictly to remind people, “Oh, yeah, there’s a remake now, isn’t there?”

Which is truly a shame.

Straw Dogs may not be on anybody’s top-10-of-all-time list, but it’s undeniable that it’s a historically significant film. It was among those films that ushered in the “grim-and-gritty” era of filmmaking that the 1970s are famous for.

And in the world we live in today, which mirrors the tumultuous times of yesteryear more and more every day, Straw Dogs makes a point that’s as relevant now as it was 40 years ago:

A man’s first instincts will always be to survive and to protect what is his; but they’re only valid if acted upon.

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