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.
A majority of social critics have focused on how Elliot directs his explosive violence towards women, and similarly many film critics have been preoccupied with the misogynist undertones of the rape scene in Straw Dogs. For me, Amy, as the rape victim, is representative of the women who became the targets of Elliott’s desire and eventually his violence. But, unlike most social and film critics, I don’t believe Elliot’s wrath was especially directed at women and, in the case of Amy’s rape, I don’t believe Peckinpah intended viewers to receive any misogynist messages from it. It isn’t, as Pauline Kael wrote in her otherwise glowing review of Straw Dogs, proof of the “old male barroom attitude: We can see that she’s asking for it.” Rather, it is proof of how men use women as tools to express their emotions and competition with one another. Peckinpah, for example, uses the rape (and has Amy enjoy it) to highlight David’s lack of masculinity. And when Elliot writes in his manifesto that women are “treat[ing] me like scum” simply because they choose more masculine and fertile lovers than himself, he is actually directing just as much of his hostility at men as he is women. “All of you sexually active men,” he says in one of his videos. “I hate you.” And, in his final video, he says that “I deserve girls much more than all those slobs I see in my college, who are somehow able to walk around with beautiful girls.”
These so-called slobs are able to walk around with beautiful girls because beautiful girls like Amy prefer masculine men over the Elliots and Davids of the world. Peckinpah makes this clear in Straw Dogs by having Amy take the side of the villagers: “They just think you’re funny,” she tells David, and later she indirectly blames him for the rapes by saying, “if you could hammer a nail, Venner and Scutt wouldn’t be out there.” Put simply, women want to be desired more than math equations or World of Warcraft. And while David constantly finds himself distracted when Amy wants sex and Elliott admits to never having approached any of the girls he was interested in, Venner and the slobs Elliot resents are not only eager for sex but are also willing to work for it. The rape scene, though an extreme rhetorical device, is Peckinpah’s attempt to show viewers the difference between David and the villagers and, likewise, between Elliot and the slobs.
Men like Elliot and David become frustrated and eventually enraged at their lack of masculinity. Their rage is therefore a result of their incompetence, and the violent acts they commit are rooted in jealousy. Both of them, shortly before their rampages, get a taste of violence. David, after fumbling around with his gun while his wife gets raped, does eventually shoot a bird, and Elliot, after fantasizing about pouring wine on men who have girlfriends, does eventually throw coffee on a smooching couple. Such violent acts give each of them a sense of power, and, because they have been so powerless for so long, they continue to extend the violence until they start taking lives. They hope that by taking lives that they will prove their masculinity to both their male competitors and the women ‘prizes’ they want to win. “If you don’t clear now,” announces David while fighting off the villagers, “there’ll be real trouble… I mean it!” And, after each act of violence, he looks back at the terrified Amy for her approval.
David, like Elliot, believed that violence would make up for his lack of masculinity. Peckinpah drives the point home when he has him slap Amy and then drag her across the room by the hair in a slow motion scene that mirrors the earlier scene in which Venner slaps and drags Amy by the hair before raping her. After killing Venner, Scutt, and the rest of the invading villagers, David then leaves Amy sitting on the staircase surrounded by bodies and takes John Niles (Peter Arne), the child-molesting half-wit who he was wrongly protecting, away in a car. “I don’t know my way home,” says Niles. To which David says, “I don’t either.” David, like Elliot, suppressed his masculinity to such an unhealthy extent that he eventually reached a moment of desperation and swung in the opposite extreme: he became a murderous monster. Because Peckinpah never takes a moral stance with Straw Dogs, and instead only examines masculinity and what happens when it is repressed, the film, if you ask me, acts as the perfect filter to last month’s madness and helps provide some insight into the atrocities committed by Elliot Rodger.