Straw Dogs (1971) – Dustin Hoffman is a young mathematician who lives with his young, attractive wife (Susan George) in a small Cornish village. They begin to experience some annoying harassment from the local villagers who are repairing their house, and when Hoffman refuses to confront them about it, she begins to lose faith in him as a man. Through a number of entanglements, they find themselves protecting a sexual predator from the vigilante violence of the townsmen, and Hoffman must confront his own fear in a bloody and violent showdown. This was a violently controversial film even when it came out, and remains so today; it is even banned in the UK. There are films which depict violence with more details, but few show it so accutely, or as brutally, and without glorification, as Straw Dogs. There is also a violent rape scene that is both sensual and painful to watch, a credit to Susan George’s expressive face and Sam Peckinpah’s honest camera work.
This film is subversive in a way that escapes most modern-day audiences. Where violence has become just another tool in today’s hero’s handbag, here it is treated as a destructive force that wreaks havoc and danger in both the giver and receiver of it. Violence hangs particularly heavy with the sexual assault of George, while Hoffman is away on a hunting trip designed to keep him away from the house. The rape is particularly poignant because of George’s continued animosity toward Hoffman, who never discovers the violence done toward her.
In all, it is quietly serene in moments, but with exploding ferocity that makes its point well, even in today’s violent cinema.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – This is an enduring example of intelligent sermonizing through cinema. This anti-war effort wracks home the point through a number of methods, but perhaps most tellingly through its honest portrayal of war as it is: bloody, swift, and from the individual’s standpoint, pointless. In war, there is no individual, just nations angry with other nations. As the story follows a group of German soldiers during World War II, their enthusiasm for war dwindles and regresses into a sullen acceptance of fate. Though some of the themes run a little heavy-handed at times, it is done appropriately and with honest candor that seems to be lacking in modern day anti-war rhetoric. Though one might disagree with the sentiments and themes expressed by the film (as I do), it can’t be said that they’re not expressed well. Definitely worth watching.
Barton Fink (1991) – The Coen brothers did it perfectly with Miller’s Crossing in 1986, and with Barton Fink, they once again show they are masters of characterization. The writing is superb, every performance in this film is tuned to a fine pitch, and the story is a fascinating blend of 1950′s ennui and the fear that comes from writer’s block. Jon Turturro is a successful playwright who is wooed to Hollywood. He arrives in steaming Hollywood, gets roped into a studio deal, and immediately falls apart. He meets a salesman (John Goodman) who is his only support through the long hot nights of restlessness, sitting at the typewriter with nothing coming out. Then Turturro wakes up with a woman who has been stabbed to death in his bed. The mood is perfectly matched by the Coen’s intelligent writing, Roger Deakins’ impeccable lighting and photography, and a nice, underkey score. Look for a particularly fine performance from John Mahoney as a William Faulkneresque writer/alcoholic. Definitely a must-see.