During the ten days I spent at Locarno, I managed to squeeze in nearly every Sam Peckinpah film I’d yet to see, leaving only two of his feature length films to watch (The Deadly Companions and The Osterman Weekend). The new perspective gained from my binge watch, in particular on his treatment of sexuality and relationships, was invaluable and transformative. Entering the festival having seen just a handful of Peckinpah films, my understanding of them as misogynistic (in the context of contemporary and superficial views) was an incredible disservice to his work as a filmmaker. His career is undeniably contradictory, but that is why it’s so interesting.
Of all Peckinpah’s films, Straw Dogs has to be the most polarizing. Even those who love it can’t help apologizing for the film’s difficult rape scene — unpacking all its insinuations, assumptions and its formal rigorousness are no easy task.
Sam Adams, for the Philadelphia City Paper, put it bluntly: “The fact that Susan George, the wife of impotent college professor Dustin Hoffman, accedes to rape by her brutish ex-boyfriend — and worse, at some point, clearly opts to enjoy it — plays into the most nauseating view of male-female relations: that all men are savages, and all women want to be savaged. But it’s also clear that, in Peckinpah’s mind, her actions are meant to be empowering, a way of seizing some small measure of control over her situation … ”
Adams really gets down to the crux of the film, that it exists in contradiction. Sure it is offensive, but it is also strangely empowering. This is incredibly transgressive, however accidental it may be.
This is the enduring power of Peckinpah, as he is constantly shifting perspectives and presenting the problematic world views of his disaffected leads. The pleasure that Susan George experiences while being raped is troublesome, but it is also not inauthentic, as this scene is still clearly understood to be an act of violence against the female character. To take it as merely a one-note male fantasy robs the character and sequence of nuance, especially as her perceived pleasure in no way discounts the fact that it IS a rape. Violence is complicated, and sexual violence, in particular, is something that many people today still struggle to fully understand. Let’s remember that rape is not always violent, it is a lack of consent, and physiologically, sometimes it is difficult to escape the natural responses of your body.
A similar scene exists in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where Elita (Isela Vega) allows herself to be raped to save her life and that of her future husband Benny (Warren Oates). The scene is similarly loaded with a sort of bizarre point of view that at turn sexualizes Elita and absolves her. This is not the first time she has been coerced into unwanted sex — she makes that very clear — and rather than resist and get really hurt, she gives in. Moments before she is “saved,” she asks one last time to be freed, and no matter how gentle her submission seems, it is established again and again that this is against her will. Even though she isn’t fighting, this is not sex but rape.
These scenes inspire anger for obvious reasons, but I’d argue that the real problem lies in the fact that they offer a complicated view of femininity that does not conform with a “right” female response. Peckinpah’s women live in a world of violence and suffer the consequences of that. Both of these rapes inspire violence from respective partners, but the revenge they enact feels unwanted and selfish. This is where things get interesting, because the rapes themselves are abhorrent and difficult to parse through…but Peckinpah refuses to take an easy path by allowing the revenge to be noble.
In spite of accusations to the contrary, Peckinpah does not celebrate violence but suggests that it is a part of humanity’s moral fabric. At worst, his use of slow-motion lends it a sort of beautiful romance, though the skill of his montage suggests it is motivated more by temporal manipulation than aesthetic. Fundamentally, I think many of Peckinpah’s characters did not understand women very well, and because his films are from the male point of view, this is reflected in their vision. This is not an excuse but helps make sense of his work, and why so many people struggle with it.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.