Friday, September 4, 2009

Straw Dogs (1971 - dir. Sam Peckinpah)

By all reports, Sam Peckinpah was a force of nature. This legendary film director is consistently described as living on the rawest edges of life. This can be felt viscerally when viewing his films. Never one to back away from controversial subjects, Peckinpah seemed to thrive on them. Frequently criticized as being an insensitive celebrator of machismo, his reaction was to simply not care...and go on to make even more controversial films. After The Wild Bunch in 1969 was roundly criticized by many critics (Roger Ebert was perhaps the most important exception, hailing the film as a masterpiece on initial viewing) for being a self-indulgent, celebratory exercise in gratuitous male violence, Peckinpah responded in a characteristic directing Straw Dogs.

I can still remember the body-blow I experienced after viewing Straw Dogs on its release in 1971. While it was apparent to me that this film had tapped into some profound aspect of human nature that was responsible for my reaction, I was unable to articulate what it was. Once again, after a number of years of work in the evolutionary psychology of human cognition and behavior, I have been able to piece together what may have been the enervating force behind this movie that impacted me (and many, many others) so much. It wasn't just a simple matter of being repulsed by scenes of violence and rape. If that were the case, trashy Saturday matinee blockbusters would be considered "controversial." This film taps into something much, much deeper in the evolved human "psyche."

A married couple's life is disrupted by the presence of a group of males that have been hired to work on their house. As the couple now lives in the wife's old home town, these males are known to her...particularly one of them - the "leader" of the group. They have a history that is never fully explained. The wife is tepid regarding her husband, a timid mathematician immersed in his work. As the tension builds, the men decide to play a trick on the husband. It's a version of "snipe hunting", a trick I remember playing on naive guys when I was a teenager. After convincing the husband that they will be hunting for birds, they quickly leave him in the fields and go back to his house. And then begins one of the most challenging scenes ever filmed....

Straw Dogs

To me, quasi-political sociological bromides such as "no means no" contribute close to nothing to our understanding of the behavior depicted in this scene. Sexual conflict is an elemental aspect of the human experience and has been a central concern of the evolutionary psychology of human mating behavior. In fact, conflict of this type occurs regularly in many other species. Let's be clear: I am not suggesting that this behavior is acceptable or not criminal. That is for legal systems to decide. What I am suggesting is that the complexities of such behavior are frequently ignored by standard social science models. Clearly, this scene depicts ambiguities that, eventually, devolve into an irrefutable incidence of rape. However, it also presents the ambiguity....and it is this that accounts for the nervous reactions of the viewer, including myself in 1971.

In their 2000 book A Natural History of Rape, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer addressed some of these ambiguities. While I disagree with several elements of their conclusions, I was happy to see that the complexities of this aspect of the human experience were being confronted in a scientifically responsible way. Of course, the authors were met by a tsunami of uninformed criticism claiming that males are "programmed to rape." I have a feeling that Peckinpah would enjoy having a drink with Thornhill and Palmer, discussing the somewhat less-than-profound nature of these critiques.

Currently, evolutionary psychological hypotheses regarding human sexual coercion include those that suggest that, in certain circumstances, male reproductive fitness is enhanced by such "strategies." For example, males unable to attract or seduce females ("low mate value" males) will be more likely to adopt a coercive strategy. A hypothesis that is even more controversial is that, if dominant, powerful males are preferred by females, coercive male reproductive strategies will be ambiguously preferred by females. Major caveat: these hypotheses are not restricted to humans but have been entertained by individuals that research other species (for example, Hanna Kokko). What is the benefit to females? Male offspring from such encounters will be more likely to possess these dominant traits and, consequently, possess increased reproductive fitness. The extent to which these hypotheses reflect human nature is unknown. However, I believe it is a question worth asking. And, I am completely aware of the chasm of misunderstanding that yawns in front of anyone entertaining such possibilities.

Similar themes are encountered in The Accused where Jodie Foster plays a character immersed in the same ambiguities. To me, the film veers off into the land of political correctness without keeping a laser-like focus on the disturbing, yet profound, realities of human nature. Peckinpah, in his masterpiece, does not blink.

The Accused


  1. Excellent analysis. Enjoying these reviews immensely.

    The common thread when I watch a Peckinpah film (even commercial fair like The Killer Elite) is a somewhat Kubrickian vibe, yet more masculine. Kubrick films seem almost asexual, and powerfully intellectual, whereas the Peckinpah vibe resonates on a more brute and instinctual/impulsive note. Both filmakers could be positively chilling along these lines; Starchild, HAL reading lips, cat hanging in the closet, Susan George *gasp* getting off a little during her brute encounter, the pause between gunfire and the look between Ernest Borgnine and William Holden.

  2. H Man: Yeah...that Borgnine-Holden look. It reminded me a little (just a little) of the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway look right before the guns opened up on them in "Bonnie and Clyde."

    Thanks for reading and for the kind words!

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