The film offers an almost caricatured version of smalltown yokels (how the Cornish must have hated their portrait in this film!). Dustin Hoffmans Americanness is made into something that becomes an affront to them. His greater sophistication, his beautiful wife, the snappy sports car in which he heedlessly nearly runs people over is seen as something unattainably desirable by the locals. Even his academic subject matter is seen as something far too sophisticated for the local vicars crude ways in one scene, Dustin Hoffman sits at home airily making digs at organized religion unaware of the vicar simmering under the collar.
Most importantly, Susan George, playing the local girl who has been won over to Dustin Hoffmans Americanness, is seen as something that taunts and stirs up the mens primal urges by her very desirability and unattainability. Director Sam Peckinpah purposely emphasizes her sexual desirability in the opening shots, he focuses in closeup on her nipples poking through her T-shirt as she walks through the street and later zooms down from the point-of-view of the workmen on her panties as her mini-skirt rides up when she gets out of the sportscar. Later she parades topless in the bathroom in plain sight of the workmen seemingly as an open taunt. We get the clear picture that this is not, as in later entries in the Backwoods Brutality cycle, hillbillies and yokels attacking city folk because country folk are closer to barbarism by virtue of their distance from civilization, but that the city folks casual sophistication and wanton freeness has stirred up something primal inside the crudely unsophisticated locals, which they attack because it taunts and shows up their lack of refinement.
Sam Peckinpah, in films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and the intensely weird Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), which is almost a horror film, was akin to a cinematic equivalent of Ernest Hemingway. Peckinpah concerned himself with mens men and masculine rituals. In some ways, Straw Dogs is the most raw of Sam Peckinpahs films. Dustin Hoffman is cast as an intellectual who must undergo rites to strip away his civilized pretensions so that he can discover his manhood. Much is symbolically made of the home he must defend.
Unlike latter entries in the Backwoods Brutality cycle, such as Deliverance, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, where the yokels were cast as simply crazy and lacking in any need for accompanying motivation they are seen as brutish and beyond all understanding of civilization Sam Peckinpah makes the case here seem much more morally ambiguous. The first half of Straw Dogs seems to be heading down the standard path that these films take but the second half when the locals attack breaks out is motivated by Dustin Hoffman giving shelter to a wanted killer. This has the effect of muting the assault morally. It gives the locals righteous motivation and it makes Dustin Hoffman, the besieged hero of the piece, into someone operating under misguided motives. The ending with he having vanquished his enemies (in a brutal and well-sustained battle) and driving the killer off to safety is designed to highlight the ambiguity of sides. Nobody, Peckinpah says, is right. His depiction of an intellectual stripped to a primal man and forced to fight is well achieved, but the confusion over sides weakens Straw Dogs one cannot help but think the film would have been better off without such a blurring of sides.
Straw Dogs (2011) was a highly disappointing remake with James Marsden cast in the Dustin Hoffman role and Kate Bosworth in the Susan George part of the wife and the locale transferred to a redneck town in the Southern US. Also of note is the Danish thriller Deliver Us From Evil (2009), which borrows substantially from the plot of Straw Dogs in a savage and biting parable about racism.