Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ethos, Misogyny, and Redemptive Violence? in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

© 1.bp.blogspot.com 2011

I recently watched Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs.  Above all else, it stimulated my mind into thinking: what is the true point of this film—what does Peckinpah really want to tell us?  How does the film really deal with women?  What code of ethics guides David’s actions?  How was the film received at its release?

I’ll take the last one first.  It seems (in my brief glancing over Rotten Tomatoes) that the film was generally positively received upon release, but generated immense controversy and polarized its audience.  Some see it as a powerful statement of manhood, others view it as a compelling thesis undermining the morality and heroism of violence, while others think of it as dangerously misogynistic, and still others find it simply cliché and poorly conceived.  Thus, it’s safe to say that the film’s reception was divided; and indeed, it remains so to this day.

I loved it.  It’s probably one of the ten or fifteen most brilliant films I’ve ever seen.  Below, I’ll analyze several elements, ultimately seeking to clarify my perception of what makes this film to distinct and so distinctly brilliant.


“Ethos” can be variously defined; but among its definitions is ‘one’s code’, as in, the code by which one lives.  And this is the sense in which I use the term in this essay.

In watching the film, the question arises: What is the code with which the film’s main character acts in accordance?

David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) acts, throughout the first part of the film, by a code resembling thus: leave each to his/her own.  Such manifests itself in how he keeps to himself through much of the film.  He’s reluctant to socialize amongst the locals, he’s reluctant to confront his hired handymen when he knows they’re working far too slowly, he’s reluctant to confront them when he finds his cat hanged in his closet.  And conversely, he’s irritated at his wife’s (Amy Sumner, played by Susan George) every interruption of his astrophysical work, and he doesn’t hesitate to confront Reverend Hood (Collin Welland) when the reverend—in Sumner’s home—attacks Sumner for his field’s responsibility in developing the atomic bomb.  All this points to a kind of ‘live and let live’ attitude that Sumner seems to hold in his daily life.

But what drives Sumner in the film’s essential segment: the attempted break-in of his house?  One could say that indeed it’s this very same ethos that drives him to fight back, and eventually kill all his attackers: he only fights back—as in, when others violate his own personal space and freedom.  They aren’t letting him live his own life, and thus he fights to preserve his code’s fundamental tenet.  On this view, he chiefly fights out of a natural inclination to defend his personal space and freedom.  Such is supported by his frequent statements like ‘I won’t tolerate violence against this house’ And while such is indeed part of Sumner’s overall ethos in acting against his prospective intruders, does it compose the whole of it?

Another reason for his actions might be his wish to protect Niles (David Warner)—a man who, for all Sumner knows, is innocent, and in any case doesn’t deserve to be beaten to death.  As he states to Amy when she insists on giving Niles to the intruders in order to appease them and stop them from destroying her home, Sumner is aware of Niles’s certain death should the intruders get their hands on him.  And he can’t tolerate this inevitability.  So it might seem that he really values protecting innocent life.  But even this act may be seen through the lens of the above discussed code.  The central tenet of that code is that one’s man own freedom is what’s most important, and Sumner believes in (1) Niles’s right to life as an innocent man, and (2) his duty to protect that which is within his care, that which he freely chose to take into his territory.  And Niles is something that is within Sumner’s care of those things.  Thus it seems that, ultimately, the ‘live and let live’ code discussed above might be David’s only code.


One of the certain critiques levied at this film is that it’s misogynistic.  And for the most part, I can’t deny that.  There are really only two decently-large female roles in a cast dominated by males: the aforementioned Amy Sumner, and Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett).  Neither is fully-dimensioned nor sympathetic.  Their being unsympathetic is especially jarring when considering that both deal with highly traumatic events in the film: Amy has an unavailable husband, deals with mental torment from the villagers working at her house, and is eventually raped by two of them; Janice either dies or passes out (the film is ambiguous) from being choked by Henry Niles.

While certainly neither of these women deserves what happens to them, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions, and their actions directly placed them into vulnerable circumstances.

Very few women would be so stupid as act like Amy or Janice.  And yet, the only two women in Peckinpah’s movie indeed act in just these ways.  Thus, in this instance, women certainly aren’t portrayed favorably in the film.  But furthermore, in the film’s most controversial sequence (the rape scene), Amy is portrayed as . . . well, enjoying it.  Or at least after initially resisting Charlie’s advances, she seems to give in and embrace him.  It’s indeed hard to not view this scene as a depraved reinforcement of the ‘rape myth’—the false belief that all women desire to be raped.  But although this scene is incredibly unsettling in that regard, I do think Peckinpah actually gives some empathy to Amy’s character in filming this and subsequent sequences, in which Amy has painful flashbacks to the rape.  I think that, in fact, Peckinpah shows the true brutality and violation of rape.

Instead of creating a stock scene in which the woman is steadfast in her feelings and hatred towards the man raping her, Peckinpah’s Amy has to deal with even further suffering: her confusion as to how she felt and still feels about what happened.  The fact that she had a previous relationship with Charlie, and remains physically attracted to him muddles her feelings about what happened.  Not only, then, does she deal with the humiliation of being violated, but she must also deal with confused and conflicting feelings towards the situation.  Rape is brutal because of the psychological damage more than the physical.  Peckinpah portrays that through Amy.

But as a last note here, it’s important for me to say that a man’s and a woman’s opinion about Straw Dogs likely vastly differs; indeed, in talking to a girl in my film class after we watched this movie, I was struck at how differently she perceived David, Amy, Charlie, and the film as a whole.  Considering how sparingly and unsympathetically it portrays women, it might be fair to say that this is truly a masculine film, and that female viewers may be left alienated from it.

Redemptive Violence

This last aspect I’m analyzing deals with the question of whether or not David’s violence at the film’s end should be seen as an act of cathartic redemption, regrettable animalism, or something in between.  My view is that it’s somewhere in between, although trending towards redemption.

But some (who think that his final acts should be seen as a sort of regrettable animalism) argue that David is the film’s villain—saying, essentially, that he subconsciously brings the violence of the villagers upon himself as an excuse for exorcising the repressed, violent demons within him.  There is a whole theory supporting this view, and one that should not be ignored.  But for space saving purposes, I’ll refrain from spelling it out.  I’ll simply express my objections to this position, which I believe are virtually insurmountable.  First, since David runs over Niles with his car, it subsequently becomes David’s moral duty to keep Niles safe until appropriate medical attention arrives.  And since David is unaware that Niles might have killed Janice Hedden, for all he knows, therefore, Niles is an innocent man.  David also knows that the villagers will surely beat Niles to death should they get their hands on him.  Therefore, he is faced with the proposition of either (a) letting a man whom for all he knows is innocent go to his certain death, or (b) risking some household violence in order to protect this presumably innocent man.  The moral thing, in most people’s minds* is certainly (b). 

When David hears the villagers shoot the magistrate (again, we have to get into David’s head: he doesn’t know that they only accidentally shoot the magistrate), he comes to the realization that they are now violent to the point of killing unselectively.

So again, we have to think: what are David’s options?  Either he should (a) send Niles—a presumably innocent man—to his certain death, or (b) do whatever is in his power to protect innocent life, even at the expense of the destruction of his house.  Once again, most moral theorists and everyday people would agree that the morally correct option is (b).  And thus, David does just that, and retains his claim to the moral highground.

And once the intruders actually break into the house, with the intent to kill, carrying deadly weapons, it is absolutely within David’s rights to mortally defend himself, his innocent wife, and his presumably innocent tenant.

Thus, I believe, sufficiently answers the question as to whether David is morally justified in his actions or not.  But another question remains: should they be seen as heroically redemptive, or tragically inevitable?  Well, the short answer is ‘both’.  They are redemptive in that, once and for all, David asserts himself and his manhood, and defeats the evil forces attempting to invade his life.  But Peckinpah’s brilliance here lies in his refusal to champion the villagers’ slayings as wholly praiseworthy.  The film ends in a void, depressed and tragic, where the violence and destruction lies bare; David has done what he had to do, but sometimes what we have to do still is tragic.  And when he leaves the house with Niles, it seems clear to me (and many other viewers) that his marriage with Amy is ruined beyond repair.

Thus, Peckinpah creates a story which’s brilliance hinges on the multi-dimensional views and emotions created by violence, misogyny, an ambiguous ethical code, and, ultimately, his ability to fully captivate his audience, bringing us with him along this terrifying, thrilling, and subtle ride.

*--In my initial post, I claimed that Kantian ethics would justify David's actions.  Upon further review, that claim is dubious: Kantian ethics might actually condemn David's actions.


  1. I'm glad you finally saw this movie and we can talk at length about it as it is definitely one of my favorites too!

    -The Savant

  2. Dear Savant,

    Thank you! And we should also include your venerable father, as I hear this is one of his favorites. I'll have to ask Marty for his view on the film, as well, as he should also be present for this discussion.

    -The Good-Looking One

  3. I just remember the violence completely violating my senses and that I couldn't process it. A lot of time's passed since I first saw it, so with more maturity behind me, I'll have to take another look at it. I'm assuming it will still make me squirm.
    Mrs. H.

    1. Mrs. H,

      The violence is indeed overwhelming. And it may be that Peckinpah shows too much of it onscreen, alienating some of his viewers (like yourself), which is too bad. It's definitely a movie that's tough to stomach; it makes many people squirm.