Portions of this review appeared in our coverage of the previous Blu-ray release of Straw Dogs. The movie review section of this review was written by M. Enois Duarte. The video, audio, supplements, and final thoughts sections were written by David Krauss.
From its opening conversation with one of the locals to the explosive concluding moments, Straw Dogs is an edge-of-your-seat roller coaster of manic emotions, riddled with tension and fear. This is the sort of film that probably shouldn't be watched by anyone with a nervous condition as it definitely gets your heart racing. Rightfully noted as Sam Peckinpah's most accomplished motion picture, this suspense masterpiece is so effective at making one's blood run cold that its contentious subject matter has caused it to be banned in certain parts of the world. And still, it remains a rather controversial feat of storytelling.
To some extent, it may seem like I'm just building up expectations, especially ones that could likely fail to satisfy younger, contemporary viewers, by which I mean movie-going experience and knowledge, not physical age. But the admiration and continued enjoyment of Straw Dogs is not only a question of whether audiences will find it a frightening watch. The film's true brilliance at generating terror resides in the story's structure and Peckinpah's masterful direction. The narrative intentionally unfolds at a leisurely pace so that we see events gradually and believably escalate out of control. It makes sense that American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), who has always avoided violence, will reach his breaking point slowly.
Very loosely based on the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams, Peckinpah co-wrote the screenplay with fellow writer David Zelag Goodman (Farewell, My Lovely, Logan's Run). In the first few minutes, they start off with an uncomfortably tense meet-and-greet of the local townspeople and key players of the plot. Charlie (Del Henney) is a creepy former childhood boyfriend of David's wife, Amy (Susan George). His friends, the subtly twisted Norman (Ken Hutchinson) and rat-catcher Chris (Jim Norton), are equally menacing and odd. The town drunk, Tom (Peter Vaughan), is a loud-mouth who makes perfectly clear his aggressive dislike of Henry Niles (David Warner), who we're led to believe has a history as a pedophile.
In that short span of time, we quickly suspect a sense of threat and hostility about the seemingly quiet village of Wakely, Cornwall. And Peckinpah is not only able to maintain that feeling, but also build upon it, as if drawing viewers into David's point of view and forcing them to share his mounting anxiety. Already coming from a background of revisionist westerns, specifically The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Peckinpah clearly steals from the conventions of that genre and sets them within a fish-out-of-water thriller. As the men's blatant taunting and harassing at the couple's home grows increasingly out of hand, Peckinpah's dense climate of terrifying anticipation grows with it, until we end up in a volatile standoff ripped from the pages of a western dime novel. Only better.
Ultimately, Straw Dogs is a brilliant and masterful piece of suspense cinema. Few films are able to generate such a visceral and uncomfortable reaction while at the same time touching on complex, insightful questions about modern society's attitude towards violence. David serves as our everyman, embodying the civilized individual, refraining from conflict as much as possible and preferring his intellectual pursuits. In essence, he's suppressed his animal tendencies the best he can, but when pushed too far by the town's bullies and forced to defend his home, his wild, unforgiving side finally emerges. It's a troubling theme that confounds the plot and asks what any one of us would do. Peckinpah's film remains a frightening thriller that continues to impress with its direction and structure.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Criterion edition of Straw Dogs arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 28-page booklet featuring a 2002 essay on the film by author Joshua Clover, a 1974 Q&A with director Sam Peckinpah by Canadian writer Andre Leroux, several color scene stills, cast and crew listings, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, this brand new, incredibly film-like 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer "was created in 4K resolution...from the 35 mm original camera negative." Though I haven't seen the transfer on the previous Blu-ray edition of the film, I can't imagine Peckinpah's masterwork looking more vibrant and textured. From the opening frames straight through to the end credits, contrast and clarity are superb, brilliantly rendering the stark Cornwall scenery and rustic interiors. John Coquillon's naturalistic cinematography can be both bold and muted, and this transfer appropriately honors every carefully composed shot, remaining slick and seamless even when jarring jump-cut images from other portions of the film flash across the screen. Grain is evident, but perfectly integrated into the film's fabric, and splashes of color beautifully punctuate the canvas, often lending it a lushness that belies the unpleasant subject matter. Verdant greens and deep reds especially shine and are complemented by rich blacks and bright whites. Flesh tones, from the rosy cheeks of English lads and lasses and ruddy faces of weathered adults to Hoffman's pasty skin and George's smooth olive complexion, remain natural and stable throughout, and only a hint of crush creeps into the image during exterior nocturnal scenes. Details are sharp, depth is evident, and close-ups are quite pleasing. Best of all, any age-related nicks, marks, or scratches have been meticulously erased, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. This is another exceptional Criterion transfer that reverently salutes a classic film.
The LPCM monaural track "was remastered from the 35 mm magnetic track," and the result is a surprisingly immersive track that sucks us into the uneasy atmosphere and holds us there for almost two hours. Peckinpah effectively juxtaposes quiet moments with jarring bursts of sound that prick up the ears and grab attention. Sonic accents, such as shrill horns, shattering glass, and thunderous gunshots, are marvelously distinct, but subtle atmospherics like chirping birds and rustling brush also come through well. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs, lows, screams, and growls without a hint of distortion, and Jerry Fielding's music score fills the room with ease. Dialogue can be a little difficult to understand at times, but that's more due to the British dialect than any audio deficiency, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackles intrude. While the action would certainly benefit from a wider soundscape, the intimate nature of this track serves the story well, too, and Criterion's remaster is a first class effort.
Unlike the previous bare-bones Blu-ray release of Straw Dogs, Criterion showers this edition with an array of relevant and absorbing supplements, many of which are essential complements to this disturbing thriller.
Audio Commentary - Kicking off the extras is a fantastic 2003 commentary from Peckinpah expert Stephen Prince, who calls Straw Dogs "one of the most audacious and brilliantly accomplished films of the modern period" and "a modern classic that is long overdue for the recognition it deserves." With a keen eye and searing insight, Prince analyzes the film from every angle, interpreting the myriad nuances of the plot and examining the tension-filled editing, visceral violence, stylized presentation, and "chronic and unsparing" alienation that define the movie. He calls the passive-aggressive David Sumner the film's villain and repeats Peckinpah's assessment of Straw Dogs as "the story of a bad marriage." Prince explains the significance of the movie's title, hails Peckinpah's use of mirrors, compares Straw Dogs to Stanley Kubrick's ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange, and notes the film obtusely reflects the U.S. involvement in Vietnam at the time. He also delves into Peckinpah's character and creative methods, labeling him an "ironist," relaying his views about women and violence, defending his artistry and radical style of filmmaking, and relating how he would "emotionally ambush" his actors to enhance their performances. There is so much more to this jam-packed commentary that holds your attention for the entire two hours and is an essential complement to this controversial masterwork. Whether or not you enjoy Straw Dogs, you owe it to yourself to listen to this superior discussion, which just might change your mind about many aspects of the film.
Documentary: "Mantrap: Straw Dogs - The Final Cut" (HD, 52 minutes) - This fascinating 2003 British documentary bluntly states, "Few films [are] more challenging than Straw Dogs," and through multiple interviews, film clips, and rare behind-the-scenes footage, it shows us why. Hoffman, George, producer Daniel Melnick, screenwriter David Z. Goodman, author Gordon Williams, other actors and crew members, and even a few extras comment on the movie and its production. We learn Peckinpah hated the novel upon which Straw Dogs is based, mercilessly abused his actors, and was almost fired after the disastrous first two weeks of shooting. His issues with women and deep-seeded demons are revealed, and the film's social implications, anti-war connections, and strong censorship backlash are explored. George revisits the farmhouse location, candidly talks about her character's sexuality, and reveals how she stood up to Peckinpah prior to filming the controversial rape scene, while Hoffman explains his character's complex motivations and dissects David and Amy's turbulent marriage. Along with the audio commentary, this is an essential extra that shouldn't be missed.
Documentary: "Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron" (HD, 94 minutes) - This comprehensive, feature-length profile from 1993 looks at Peckinpah from every angle, beginning with his family's migration to California, Peckinpah's upbringing in Fresno, and desire to preserve the Old West on film. It then goes on to explore the director's attitudes toward women, his penchant for "unnerving" people and keeping them "confused and unbalanced," his substance abuse and paranoid tendencies, his intimate relationship with his assistant, and how his "demons destroyed him and his work." Actor Jason Robards reads from Peckinpah's personal papers, and interviews with actors Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, and Ali MacGraw, as well as close friends and colleagues (who reveal Peckinpah's softer side), shed further light on this complicated and tortured man and his stirring films.
Behind the Scenes (HD, 8 minutes) - This vintage, roughly cut, black-and-white production featurette includes interviews with Peckinpah (who expresses his disdain for the book and love of England), Hoffman (who talks about his family and fame), and George (who states her distaste of nudity).
Featurette: "Show Me Something Else: Roger Spottiswoode on Editing Sam Peckinpah" (HD, 36 minutes) - The established director, who was one of the editors of Straw Dogs (which he terms "not just a violent film, but a film about violence"), recalls how he got the job, describes the film's primitive editing process and how he composed the movie's final showdown, and shares several colorful Peckinpah anecdotes. He also discusses Peckinpah's ambivalent feelings about violence, the negative reaction that greeted early screenings of Straw Dogs, and how Peckinpah influenced him as a director.
Interview with Susan George (HD, 21 minutes) - In this revealing 2002 interview, the actress lets her hair down and shares her memories of Hoffman and Peckinpah, the often "terrifying" shoot, and how she stood up to her intimidating director at the tender age of 21. In addition, she talks about how her natural acting style conflicted with Hoffman's Method training, how Peckinpah created drama on and off the set, and how Straw Dogs has defined her and changed her life.
Interview with Daniel Melnick (HD, 19 minutes) - The producer of Straw Dogs discusses acquiring the book upon which the film is based, finding the location, Hoffman's boundless creativity, the on-set victimization of Susan George (which, he concedes, led to a "wonderful performance"), and monitoring Peckinpah to keep him on track during shooting in this 2002 interview. He also praises the cast and crew, recalls the audience reaction to all the violence, and details how the rape scene led the film to be banned in Great Britain for many years. Though he recognizes Peckinpah's faults, Melnick conveys his high regard for the director and calls him "the last man with guts and integrity in the film business."
Interview with Garner Simmons (HD, 10 minutes) - Peckinpah's biographer calls his subject "the most difficult person" and strongly states "unless you fought with him, you couldn't get to know him." Simmons says Peckinpah was "misunderstood," that violence played only a small part in his directorial persona, and that "the best of Sam still survives." He also cogently analyzes Straw Dogs in this brief but absorbing 2002 conversation.
Featurette: "A Controversial Classic: Linda Williams on Straw Dogs" (HD, 27 minutes) - Film scholar Linda Williams examines and celebrates the film's edgy attitudes toward male-female relationships, sexual mores, and violence. She provides a brief history of how censorship affected the movies of Hollywood's Golden Age and looks at some key films prior to Straw Dogs that helped relax the production code. Williams then delves deeply into the sexual and social themes that permeate Peckinpah's film, focusing intently on the rape scene and its implications. She also feels the picture overplays its horror angle, discusses why it repels and revolts many women, and calls it an "exemplary example" of a film that conveys "bad, evil, misogynist, fascist messages," despite its undeniable greatness.
Trailers and TV Spots (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original theatrical preview, which touts the man "who uncaged The Wild Bunch now unleashes Dustin Hoffman," along with three TV spots complete the extras package.
More than 45 years after it first premiered, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs remains one of the most tense, unnerving, violent, and controversial films ever made. But underneath the basic man-against-thugs, home defense premise lies a complex, psychological tale of human nature and the deep-seeded traits that shape, drive, and torture us. Fantastic video and audio transfers and a comprehensive supplemental package distinguish what must be called the definitive release of this classic and deeply disturbing movie. Straw Dogs may be tough to take, but its complexities, divisive themes, and bold artistry make it one of Hollywood's most influential - and, yes, essential - films. Must Own.