Friday, October 21, 2011

Straw Dogs Blu-ray Review

To escape the Vietnam-era chaos in the U.S., American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) moves with his British wife Amy (Susan George) to an isolated English village. Their presence provokes antagonism among the village’s men.  Escalating from routine bullying to the gang rape of his wife, David finds his pacifist self being backed into a corner and responds in the violent and gruesome manner he abhors. Released in celebration of the film’s 40th Anniversary and in anticipation of the upcoming theatrical remake, this violent and suspenseful tale from legendary director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild BunchThe Getaway) stars two-time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman (The GraduateLittle Fockers) and Susan George (MandingoThe House Where Evil Dwells).

Film (3 out of 5 stars) 

When an American mathematician flees America due to the tumult caused by the Vietnam War with his wife back to her hometown in England, he encounters an even worse situation away from home.  When David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) arrives in the village of Wakely withhis wife Amy (Susan George) they believe that they are going to make a fresh start.  They have returned to Amy’s hometown to reside in a quaint old cottage that’s in the process of being repaired by three somewhat disreputable villagers from Amy’s past.  Another figure from her past is Charlie Venner (Del Henney) who used to be romantically involved with Amy and he barely disguises his disgust with David.  In fact, he attempts to kill Amy when David walks away to buy some cigarettes.  Amy rejects his advances but does nothing more and doesn’t even mention it to David when he returns.
This insular village has many dark secrets and they are fairly hostile to outsiders as David soon learns.  The most antagonistic villager is the burly town drunk Tom Heddon (Peter Vaughan) who’s distrust and threats also extend to one of the village’s own members named Henry Niles (David Warner) who has a reputation of being an unstable pedophile.  Tom’s daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) fancies David but when he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings she starts conversing with Henry which will have serious consequences later.  In between the workmen at the house including Charlie who lust after Amy and the unchecked aggression of most of the villagers, it’s a powder keg just waiting to go off.
The movie’s ambiguity is what has mostly given this movie the legacy it has.  While Amy professes to not want the advances of the workmen or Charlie, she wears tight sweaters with no bra, and later exposes herself to them after a fight with David.  Amy is frustrated with David since all he wants to focus on is his work which leaves little time for her. All David wants is to be left alone and for Amy to take care of the house but refuses to do his part to help out.  For Amy, David’s reluctance or inability to fulfill male oriented expectations such as fix the toaster or tell off the workmen, it emasculates him in her eyes and makes Charlie look more desirable as he is not only masculine but is able to repair the house they are in.  Things get even worse when David and Amy discover their cat killed and hung up in their closet and David refuses to talk to the workmen that Amy is convinced did it.
Instead of confronting the men, David attempts to befriend the men and accepts their invitation to go hunting but they soon abandon David in a remote area.  Despite her statements against Charlie and the rest of the men, Amy still lets Charlie in the house who immediately makes advances towards her which she refuses.  Charlie won’t take no for an answer and he rapes Amy.  This scene caused a ton of controversy when the film was released due to the ambiguity of this act for while Amy said no, the film shows her enjoying it at some level and she even willingly participates at some points.  That ambiguity is eliminated when one of the other workmen enters the house with a shotgun and forces Charlie to hold Amy down while he rapes her.  This time, Amy fights as best as she can but there’s nothing she can do.
When David returns home tired and dirty, Amy doesn’t even mention the rapes.  Now feeling foolish after being left by the workmen, he fires them which starts a chain reaction that will spiral out of control.  Later at a church function, Amy and David are surrounded by them men they want nothing to do with and it’s too much for Amy to be that near her rapists and they leave.  Meanwhile, after being sprurned by David again, Janice leaves with Henry which doesn’t end well for her when she is accidentally killed by him when the villagers come to close to their hiding place.  Feeling the body of Janice, Henry is hit by David’s car and they take him back to their house to get help.  Once Tom and his lackeys discover that Henry is at David’s house, they begin to siege the house to retrieve him.  Their unrelenting aggression finally pushes David too far and the once meek and timid man becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Straw Dogs had plenty of critics when it was released as they accused director Sam Peckinpah of promoting both misogyny and violence as something to be desired.  Peckinpah denied both charges and I agree with him on the violence front since the way it’s portrayed is ugly and we also see the consequences from it. While Amy wanted David to act like more of a man and stand up to the men, she’s horrified to see him actually do it. David leaves America to escape violence but when it comes down to it, he’s just as willing as anyone else to use violence when needed.  These kind of contradictions populate this movie and I’m sure that’s why it has so many fans. There is no simple black and white choices for the characters as this is filled with shades of grey.  Even the concept of who is the real villain of the movie is has been left ambiguous as Peckinpah reportedly felt that it was David, while most moviegoers would say it was Charlie and the rest of the work men.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (1.85:1) transfer looks pretty good for its age and for being such a dark movie too.  While there are some specks present and some fairly heavy grain visible, there are no serious blemishes or scratches to detract from it.  Colors are muted for the most part but since most of the movie has an earth tone or dark palette there isn’t much that can be done.  Black levels are fairly good especially during the final siege of the house which is almost completely dark.  Flesh tones are natural and balanced throughout the movie. John Coquillon’s cinematography captures the moodiness of the English countryside well and this transfer while not up to today’s standards, looks good for a film from its era.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Straw Dogs’s original mono mix has been redone as a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix which is decent but nothing spectacular.  The dialogue is clear for the most part, and the music by Jerry Fielding is also faithfully reproduced.  I don’t think adding the extra channels really did much for this film other than add a little more ambiance, but I think I would still prefer this track over the original mono one.  This is still a front channel centric movie, with only a limited amount of the mix devoted to the rear channels.  As this is primarily a dialogue driven movie it works fine and I’m sure it’s better than the mix on the previous DVD release.

Special Features (1 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Unlike the Criterion Collection’s extras, this Blu-ray has the bare minimum to offer.  I don’t know why they couldn’t license Criterion’s material or generate their own, but either way this is disappointing.  What little is offered is in standard definition.
  • TV Spots – Three TV spots used to advertise the movie.
  • Theatrical Trailer

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars) 

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While it’s easy to sympathize with David and Amy’s plight, they both in their own way and perhaps subconsciously, helped make it happen. Amy, by flashing the men and constantly pushing David to be more aggressive than he wanted to be.  David made the mistake of trying to avoid a confrontation until it escalated beyond his control and then his refusal to turn over Henry which started the siege.  When David refuses to release Henry even after Henry attacks Amy, it becomes even more apparent that David now having been pushed too far is deliberately provoking the men outside to ensure a fight.  Because of both Amy and David’s choices, you get a feeling by the end of the movie that their lives will never be the same and their relationship may be finished.  Straw Dogs is a bleak, violent, and infuriating enigmatic movie that continues to challenge viewers and one that is filled with some great performances by Hoffman, George, and Vaughan.
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