Straw Dogs

Revisiting the infamous film Straw Dogs on a cold winter’s evening, I was gripped by the re-emergence of themes which I’ve found steadily more interesting over the last few years. It’s certainly tempting to write an exhaustive essay on the ins and outs of a complex and messy film, but it feels more relevant to this blog to grab two distinct ideas and run around inside them for a moment. 

The first is why the countryside should so frequently serve as the backdrop to horror. This bothered me in the autumn as I laboured over films like Midsommar and The Wickerman. I washed up with the idea that horror lies in the subversion of expectation – the countryside is “supposed” to be peaceful and calm, so it’s horrifying to have that idea confounded by gritty tales of rural unease. That’s the main thrust of Straw Dogs, which stars a young Dustin Hoffman in one of his first major film roles, the American mathematician David Sumner.

The first part of the film simply reframes that conceit of an outsider seeking peace and respite in a rural community; Sumner and his wife Amy escape to her childhood home so that he can write a book on Applied Mathematics. The film offers a bucolic vision of farmhouses and drystone walls filmed in a bleak and wintry South Cornwall – but almost from the start, the timid academic seems out of his depth in a macho rural community where “we take care of our own”. Padding around in his little white sneakers, Sumner is bullied and undermined by a host of heavy-handed rustics. Circumstances finally wash him up as the last bastion of moral propriety in a world that has descended to alcohol-fuelled mob violence. So much for the plot, which achieved lasting notoriety off the back of a moment during the film’s finale where a rapist has his head smashed by a man-trap. 

Even from the outset, there is a sense of life on the frontier; we are far from the comfort of civilization. After all, this is an American film where the pub almost doubles as an ol’ time saloon, complete with fist fights and smashed glasses. The cliche of “the hostile country pub” appears so often in films and books that it has almost become a standard fixture, drawing strength of unease from the inherent contradiction of a “public house” that is essentially “private” – that feeling when the door swings open and the piano stops playing. Think of The Green Man pub in The Wickerman (1973), or the improbably dire “The Slaughtered Lamb” in American Werewolf in London (1981) – the expectation of hospitality measured against the reality of grudging silence. 

The “Wakely Arms” in Straw Dogs conforms to this pattern – Sumner’s visits are wretchedly awkward, and yet this is a comparatively peaceful hub in a film that is otherwise jangled with discordant noises and a score which crawls in and out of your ears like a damaged insect. The landscape is devastatingly empty. Windswept trees drive diagonal lines across the scenery as if they had been carved in place by a prop designer. It’s the perfect canvas to spin this tale, particularly when the warm and comfortable hearth of the pub is utterly sealed by introversion and coolness. The magistrate drinks at a table by himself, but it’s clear that his power is fragile – the unexplained injury he carries to his arm is a neat way to convey his frail grasp on authority.

Having established a sense of frosty unease in the landscape, the second point of interest is the portrayal of rural masculinity, particularly as represented by a gang of bully-boy labourers. Sumner is a mouse beside them, and their bullish antics simply accentuate his self-effacing dorkiness. When men come to repair a shed roof, the atmosphere of testosterone is oppressive – but the sexual assault on Amy Sumner which follows is nuanced and eerily ambiguous, dancing back and forth between consent and denial. It’s an extraordinary exploration of manly men; hyper-sexuality and clannish tribalism; this is clearly rape from beginning to end, and yet somehow it becomes steadily more horrifying as the situation escalates. By the end of the scene, we have watched two separate rapes – and yet the film permits us to wonder if one is more understandable than the other. Straw Dogs’ moral compass is boiled in a soup of testosterone – it’s no wonder that the film has been reviled by critics for almost fifty years, but it does offer something more complex than lurid and aggressive misogyny.

As violence gathers, the gang descends into simian lunacy. The men revert to the level of chicks or puppies, pecking at the “weakling” Sumner. In flinging live rats through broken windows during the farmhouse siege, the rat-catcher giggles and, like a nursery rhyme, reminds us that their death is his life. The men caper and play in the darkness, swinging like chimps from the remains of an old greenhouse. And when the magistrate is killed during a confusing scuffle, the raiders reach a boyish consensus that if you break one law, you might as well break them all. So they’re freed by the murder; there is no fear of reprisal when the telephone lines have been cut and it’s miles to the nearest friendly face. That sense of rural isolation compounds the frenzy, but it springs from something more primally human – big, heavy-handed men loosened from the harness and freed to run wild. 

Sumner’s feebleness fades as the tension builds. In throwing down a marker to resist the drunken mob, he makes a statement that is bigger than himself. What begins as the symbolic, almost religious declaration: “I will not allow violence against this house” soon becomes a matter-of-fact declaration of war: “I’m going to keep them out of this house”. The bouncy, boyish professor is now pallid, sweat soaked and coldly pragmatic. Provoked and driven to the brink, he is almost more terrifying than the attackers. It would not be hard to revisit the script to recast this softly spoken American mathematician as a psychopath – an insecure wimp pressed to flip by the boisterous hi-jinks of manlier men. By the end of the film, Hoffman has killed or grievously injured six human beings. He seems to have renounced his marriage and, with an expression of lost bemusement, confesses that he can’t find his way home. In any other context, he would make for a strange hero. 

Away from bigger themes around sex and violence, Straw Dogs is fascinated by the tension between manual and cerebral work; the role of Old and New masculinities and the shocking reality of life without law or civilization. It’s clear that the film wouldn’t work in a town or an urban setting; it has to be that lonely farmhouse in a backwards parish. But conversely, the landscape alone is hardly enough to be chilling without the knot and roil of human interest. 

It’s a nice coincidence that I stumbled upon an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson this morning which worked around the idea of people in place. In Talk and Talkers, Stevenson invites us to treat conversation as a roadmap for good story-telling. Observing that it’s unusual for talk to linger for long upon the literal details of scenery and landscape, he ruefully wonders if writers make too much of setting and geography in fiction. And importantly, he returns to the idea that human beings are primarily interested in other people, first and foremost. The inference is that while a story should have a good setting, place is merely a secondary consideration behind credible, vivid and relatable human interest. Eighty years later, Straw Dogs might confirm this by using a location that is simply “away” – or at least – “not here”. If that’s true, then I’m giving undue emphasis to the Cornish countryside as the location for horror and unease – it could just as easily have been the Argentinian pampas or the Australian outback. A 2011 remake of Straw Dogs was set in Mississippi – it failed because it lacked the edginess and nuance of the original, but there was nothing wrong with the location. And all the while, it’s perfectly possible that I’m just treating Stevenson’s idea like a new toy and I’m bending it to fit in places where it doesn’t.

As one final note on the film, there’s an awful scene where a missing cat is found to have been hung from a pull-switch in a closet. I don’t want to revisit the camera angle in case my suspicions are correct, but it looked to me like that was a real dead cat. 

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