Dustin Hoffman plays a mild-mannered mathematician who moves to a Cornish village along with his sexy young wife, played by Susan George (in the best performance of her career). While he spends his days making notations on a blackboard and checking his calculations, his wife acts bored. Like a little girl with nothing better to do, she erases symbols from the blackboard when his back is turned. She wants his attention, but he is obsessed with his work. This situation becomes complicated when Hoffman hires a crew of workers to repair the roof of an adjoining building. His wife complains about the workers' leers, but later she stands naked in the hallway, clearly exposed to the workers through a window. A recipe for disaster is in the making.
David Warner plays a supporting role as a simple-minded man. After he disappears with a local girl, her family is ready to tear the countryside apart in order to find her and Warner. These stories converge at the mathematician's farm, as Hoffman takes in Warner and protects him. Previously, Hoffman wasn't prepared to fight for his wife's honor or for the sanctity of their home, but in an ironic twist with strong tinges of misplaced bleeding-heart liberalism--it's the movie's masterstroke--Hoffman is willing to risk everything to protect a man who may in fact be a murderer.
At this point, the movie erupts in a vicious spasm of violence. While the missing girl's angry brothers and father smash the windows and throw their bodies against the farm house's front door, Susan George pleads with Hoffman to hand over Warner. But after he gives sanctuary to Warner, Hoffman becomes a bulldog who won't back down.
Hoffman clearly isn't playing a hero. For most of the movie, he looks foolish--as when the workers convince him to go hunting and he ends up participating in a British version of a snipe hunt. And when the family cat is killed, his wife urges him to ask the workers about the cat, but he doesn't say anything, insisting that he must wait until the time is right. But the time is never right. In his wife's eyes (and in the eyes of the workers), Hoffman is an impotent and absurd figure of a man.
The violence in Straw Dogs works as a cathartic release that allows Hoffman to discover his own strength and masculinity. But what are we to make of Hoffman's discovery? Many critics in the '70s saw this discovery as a profound revelation. The reviewer for Newsweek said, "Peckinpah works with such power and artistry that we accept his totems and taboos and even find ourselves cheering like willing barbarians at Hoffman's brutal battle to the death. What he does for his hero, he does for us: he puts us in touch with our primal feelings. He allows his audience to ventilate without guilt its frustrations and hatreds." These comments sound like hyperbole nowadays. While some people might cheer at the violence in Straw Dogs, the movie provides few easy answers. Peckinpah gives us a universe of ambiguous morality: this is the movie's strength--its willingness to avoid simple equations. When Hoffman drives away at the end of the movie, he quite literally drives into fog, unsure where he's going and what he will do. His smile tells us that he has chosen a preferable route, but his future is unknown.
Straw Dogs isn't in the same category as Peckinpah's best work, for the movie is seriously flawed by its caveman attitude toward women. But nonetheless, it's a powerful, haunting meditation on the relationship between manhood and violence.