Good films entertain, great films enlighten, and some films, the greatest of the great, do all these things, and they keep doing them for all eternity… or at least until governments ban them for challenging the status-quo. Often the greatness of them isn’t obvious upon their release. Eventually, though, something baffling will happen to us, or the world we live in, and we’ll realize that in the previously unrecognized film, an explanation lives like a gold nugget just waiting to enrich the lives of its viewers today.
After reading about the 22-year-old Elliot Rodger who killed six innocent college students in sunny Santa Barbara last month because no women wanted to have sex with him, I was in need of something hat would help me understand why this infertile fly believed the laws of Darwin didn’t apply to him and that he had a right to sex in spite of his pitifulness. The mainstream media wrote him off as an under-medicated madman. The feminists claimed he was nothing more than a murderous misogynist. The misogynists argued that all would have been well if he had learned from the pick-up artist community. Democrats pointed to the lack of gun control. Republicans blamed his closeted homosexuality. Baby-Boomers believed the self-entitlement of the Millennials was the cause, and the Millennials held the Baby-Boomers accountable for letting him watch too much television.
While each of these concise explanations could have played a role in Elliot’s killing spree, they were all offered too easily… and all are too political and too slanted. I needed an explanation less grounded in reality — because his actions surely weren’t. If I was going to examine such mindless murders, and possibly comprehend them, I needed distance. I needed to filter his actions through a film. The fact that Elliot was the son of a Hollywood filmmaker and that he preceded his massacre with his own series of film-inspired videos — the last of which was shot when the sun was setting, in what cinematographers call the ‘magic hour’ — further convinced me of this need. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), it turns out, was the perfect filter. Banned in Great Britain just like the gun Elliott used, Straw Dogs pushes the moral boundaries of cinema and brings it’s audience to the darkest corners of humanity where the Elliot Rodgers of the world are spawned.
The story focuses on a mathematician named David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) as they migrate from America where he was an esteemed professor to the rural English village she came from. While Amy feels at home there, David is an out-of-place intellectual who feels threatened by the more masculine villagers. One of these villagers is Charlie Venner (Del Tenney) who Amy used to date and who David hires, along with his mates, including the ex-con Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchinson), to do some repairs at their country home. He hires them even though he sees the sexual tensions that exist between his wife and Venner. As the story progresses, Peckinpah reveals a dysfunctional marriage in which David talks down to Amy, looks for excuses not to have sex with her, and takes great joy in throwing fruit at her cat while she, in response, interrupts his studies by sticking gum to his blackboard and flirting with the villagers by standing shirtless in front of windows.
The film reaches a turning point after David, rather than interrogating Venner and his mates about the cat of Amy’s they hung, accepts an invitation from them to go hunting — an odd decision that reminded me of a passage in Elliot’s pre-massacre manifesto, “My Twisted World”: “I hated them so much,” he writes about the ‘cool kids’ in his elementary school, “but I had to increase my standing with them. I wanted to be friends with them.” In David’s case, he attempts to make friends with the men who intimidate him and his wife by following them hunting into the woods where they literally leave him holding the bag. Meanwhile, Venner goes back to the house and rapes the somewhat willing Amy. Then Scutt shows up and violently takes his turn by forcing, at gun point, Venner to assist him. It’s not obvious, but there is a sense that David knew what would happen when he accepted the hunting invitation. “There are eighteen different places in that film, if you look at it, where he could have stopped the whole thing,” Peckinpah said in an interview. “As so often in life,” he clarifies, “we let things happen to us because we want it to.”
I’m not sure why David subconsciously wants the villagers to rape his wife, but I am sure that it relates to his repressed masculinity. Peckinpah, known mostly for his work in the Western genre, is an authority on masculinity, and with Straw Dogs he shows what happens when a man fails to fulfill his biological urges and allows himself to become a victim of other men and the society that reflects them. David, like Elliot Rodger, is someone who will do whatever is necessary to avoid confrontation. Peckinpah implies that he moved to the isolated English village so he wouldn’t have to choose sides in the Vietnam protests taking place at his university back in America, and, once there, he acts like a mouse lost in a cat house. On the way to his country home, for example, he stops at the pub where the village brute, Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan), demands a pint after closing time and then lashes out in drunken aggression until he gets what he wants… and David, though disturbed by the scene, responds by avoiding eye-contact and crossing his legs as if to present himself as a non-threatening woman.
If the constant changing of schools and roommates described in his manifesto is any indication, Elliot responded to conflict in a similar way. Instead of adapting to his environment and trying to confront the aspects of it that distressed him, he chose to run away from his problems and perpetrators. “I wanted to confront them,” he writes, but “I just didn’t know how.” He and David both foolishly thought their privileged statuses — as the son of a Hollywood filmmaker and as an esteemed mathematician — were enough to command respect. They thought their trendy clothes and expensive cars would make up for their faults. But whether it was the kids at Taft High School who pushed Elliot against lockers or the villagers who tried to run David off the road, these more masculine members of society can sense weakness and will naturally prey on it like a pack of wolves tearing apart a malnourished elk that can’t keep up with the herd.
In defense against the wolves, both Elliot and David present themselves as peaceful people, but they do so dishonestly. Whereas the purposeful pacifism that marked the lives of great men like Ghandi and MLK came from strength, Elliot and David use pacifism as a front for their weakness. Elliott writes that jealousy and envy “are two feelings that would dominate my entire life and bring me immense pain,” and, like David, instead of expressing or coping with these feeling he does his best to escape them. While David escapes into his work, spending hours upon hours in his study doing mathematical equations, Elliot escapes into the game World of Warcraft. “All I wanted to do was hide away from the cruel world by playing my online games,” he admits in his manifesto. David’s equations and Elliot’s gaming may have helped them avoid the stresses of reality, but they also acted as barriers separating them from their peers, their society, and, most damaging of all, their masculinity.
A man’s masculinity cannot be repressed forever, and reading Elliot’s manifesto is not much different than watching Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in that the narratives remind me of lit fuses gradually making their way towards their explosive ends — Elliot killing six college students and David killing off Venner and his mates. But the difference between the two stories, in addition to one being non-fiction and the other fiction, is that Elliot’s manifesto is told by a deranged madman whereas Straw Dogs is told by a highly skilled filmmaker. Peckinpah, unlike the delusional Elliot, understands violence and its triggers — and he seems to say that it is those men who fail to embrace their masculinity, like Elliot and David, that are capable of the most evil. In fact, for all the animalistic violence that Venner, Scutt, and the rest of the barbarian-like villagers of Straw Dogs take part in, David, the only murderer in the film, is the most uncivil beast of them all.