Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A look back at 'Straw Dogs'

Halfway through Straw Dogs, I tried to make sense of what I was watching. It's not that the film didn't have a proper story. It's just that whatever message it was trying to get out didn't reach me. But I went on. Watched it till the end. The message didn't really get across to me, but it left me much to think back on. To reflect on.

The film tells the story of an American couple who decide to live in Cornwall, in England. The husband, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mathematician; the wife, Amy, a housewife. They want to escape America. To get away from probably the most turbulent time in that country's postwar history. This is in the late 1960s.

Cornwall is a quiet town. There are people who drink, who smoke, who even brawl once in a way. But it's largely peaceful. That's what David wants. What he thinks he gets. Before the past catches up with him.

Amy has been raised in Cornwall. Her ex-boyfriend (from her childhood) meets them. He's a ruffian. A vandal. So is the rest of his "gang". Soon enough, though, David falls for and befriends them. He doesn't know they resent him because he's married "one of them". He's the outsider, in their part of the world. That's how they begin to ridicule him: by teasing him about, by making fun of how unused he is to Cornwall and England.

The story takes a turn for the worse, eventually. Amy's ex-boyfriend, Charlie, and his cronies trick David. They take him on a hunting trip, leave him, and come back to rape his wife. She succumbs to them helplessly, and never tells her husband about what happened. Not even in the end.

That's when the film becomes violent.

I have seen Straw Dogs twice now, and each time I have wondered about what the film is really about. It provokes deep questions, about otherness, about cultural displacement, and about violence. But most of all, it piques us with one subtle question: "What exactly is 'manliness'?" It is a question no other film has explored with such honesty, such brutal frankness. A question the film never really answers. A question I've been trying to find in it. I still am.

David is unused to Cornwall. He makes mistakes. Like ordering American cigarettes. Like walking between a dart-player and his board. Like ordering drinks "on the house" without staying to drink. Innocent mistakes. Mistakes that cost him friendship and win him resentment.

From the beginning, David is portrayed as a peaceable, friendly man who prefers appeasement to provocation. He wants to live in harmony, and even when it's obvious that Charlie's gang want him out, he smiles at them. His wife, on the other hand, wants him to be more assertive. He doesn't want to. All he wants is to spend time by his board and his mathematical equations.

There's a crucial sequence in the film where David asserts (or rather tries to assert) himself. He has hired Charlie and his gang to repair his house. From morning till dusk, they work. They also threaten. Subtly. Like killing Amy's cat and hanging it in her closet. Or making fun of David's driving on the way to the local pub. After much thought and after debating with his wife, he fires the gang.

That's when violence starts spiraling. Out of control.

One thing leads to another. A gang member's sister is killed by the village idiot. He makes his way to David's house. David tries protecting him. The gang, drunk and angry, try to take him out. Diplomatically. Doesn't work.

The story takes a turn here. The divide between civilisation and chaos blurs. Till now, David has been the idealist. He has tried to escape from America, from the violence which that country is succumbing to. He thinks England is safer. Not anymore. There's danger in every society alright, but it is in those societies where you are the "Other" than danger can go out of control. And David, the outsider in the story, is misplaced.

Communities are formed in two ways. It can define for itself a set of principles and rules. It can also define itself based on what differentiates it from the "Other". That's what Straw Dogs tells or at least tries to tell us. David, fresh from America and relocated in another country, is displaced. Rootless. In the society he is now removed to, he needs to find something to cling to. He does this by going back, by regressing, to something which bonds him to the savages who are trying to get at him. He becomes one of them. A savage. An animal.

Perhaps it is this thin line line (between order and chaos) that binds us closer to each other. It is said that against a common enemy, everyone unites. It is also said that when faced with an impenetrable enemy, we tend to think and behave like him/her. When we regress and when we go back to that "common link" which links enemy with enemy, we are little better than animals. But in a world where violence is celebrated and peace looked down upon, it still remains a last, basic resort. Which we take to. In the end.

Straw Dogs was a little too violent for me though. Its message made up for that. Thankfully. Dustin Hoffman portrayed his character the way it was meant to be. It was remade a few years ago. I haven't seen the remake, but I have been told by everyone that it can't match the original. Maybe. In any case, I don't think its ending can ever be replicated. It ends with everyone in Charlie's gang dead. Killed. David, together with the village idiot, drives to the pub, presumably to get the police. The film closes with these lines:

The Idiot: I don't know where I live.
David: That's all right. Neither do I.

We don't know where we live. We don't know whether those we live with define us for who we are or for what they are not. Either way, Straw Dogs left me much to think on. It may not have answered questions. At the end of the day, it made me think. Reflect. If a film can provoke me to do that, then I'm happy. Even if what was provoked wasn't resolved.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 14 2015