Sidewinder’s View: The Straw Graduate Dog

I loved the movie The Graduate when I was younger. Now I really don’t enjoy it at all. The Simon And Garfunkel soundtrack, the film’s cinematography and its editing remain impressively effective.

I simply can’t stand the characters.

Benjamin, Mrs. Robinson, her daughter Elaine, both of Benjamin’s parents, are either creeps or drips, depicted in varying shades of shallow, selfish and petty. The screen presence of the cast helps enormously, but imagine if these characters were played by less appealing, less talented actors.

The only character I have the slightest sympathy for, believe it or not, is Mr. Robinson.

Nothing this poor sad sack says or does to Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is really that offensive or obnoxious. However, since the character’s played by squinty, gravel-voiced Murray Hamilton, (as opposed to, say, a warmer, more charming actor like Jimmy Stewart), I guess we’re meant to cringe or recoil a bit when the character gives Benjamin some friendly advice early on in the movie, thus making Benjamin’s subsequent decision to help Mrs. Robinson cheat on her husband more palatable, if not justifiable.

I don’t care that Benjamin’s played by an appealing young actor sporting a helpless, sad-eyed puppy dog vulnerability (notwithstanding that horrible persona he adopts during his first date with Elaine). The character’s a shallow, self-centered slacker who becomes a homewrecker, a stalker and, finally, a tantrum-throwing social vandal…who gets the girl to run away with him at the end of the picture.

Ah, Hollywood.

Anymore, The Graduate only works for me if I view it as an unofficial prequel to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which remains one of my favorite films.

Often misunderstood, Straw Dogs is its director’s most challenging, layered and complex film. Not so much an entertainment as a brilliantly observed case study of pathological misanthropy.

In both pictures, Hoffman essentially plays the same character under a different name: a petty, passive-aggressive narcissist driven by insecurity and resentment.

Only this time around, instead of the character’s selfish, antagonistic behavior resulting in fractured relationships and impetuous social vandalism, it leads to life-shattering depravity and violence.

In the alternate universe I’ve imagined both films sharing, Benjamin Braddock’s been ostracized by friends (what friends?) and family alike, following his brief failed flings with the alcoholic Mrs. Robinson and her vacuous daughter.

The loathsome creep then ran away back to the East Coast where he’d graduated, changed his name to David Sumner and took a teaching job at his old school, where he met Amy (Susan George), the pretty, flirtatious coed who foolishly went about sweeping this unappreciative slug off his feet.

After Benjamin/David married her, primarily to possess her as a trophy, this petty jerk, haunted by an inescapable sense of self-loathing, ran even further from his past, relocating with Amy to her native England, which is where Straw Dogs picks up the story of Benjamin/David’s continuing descent into misanthropy.
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WARNING: “STRAW DOGS” SPOILERS AHEAD
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As Peckinpah’s classic begins, thanks to Benjamin/David’s relentlessly antisocial tendencies, he quickly makes enemies of the worst people in town.

As a result of his passive-aggressive oneupsmanship with those same people, his wife is viciously assaulted. So strained is their marriage, so low is Amy’s confidence in her husband’s ability to be supportive, she can’t even bring herself to tell him about having been sexually assaulted.

With injured pride following his humiliation by the local thugs, Benjamin/David goes to bat for a child-killing simpleton. A bunch of drunken vigilantes show up for the child-killer at Benjamin/David’s home and wind up dead as the passive-aggressive antagonist finally drops the pretense of passivity.

“I will not allow violence against this house”, he tells Amy, as he sets about defending his property (actually, his father-in-law’s property) with spontaneous, homicidal gusto.

Then, shockingly, but in a manner befitting his flawed character, Benjamin/David abandons his visibly traumatized wife at the earliest opportunity, leaving her alone and vulnerable in their ransacked home, surrounded by the bodies of their attackers (two of whom had raped her earlier).

Perhaps each of the thugs are dead, but perhaps not. Benjamin/David can’t be bothered to check before shuttling the child-killing simpleton off in his car for destinations unknown, leaving the impression he has no plan of returning to his wife or the home he just committed bloody murder for.

Amy remains the only sympathetic character in the story. She does make a few mistakes, like when she’s home alone and foolishly invites her horny ex-boyfriend in for a drink, or when she’s about to unlock the door for the vigilante mob outside, but ask yourself…

Would she have been faced with any of those quandaries at all if her husband had simply reacted to earlier situations with maturity and concise action instead of his too-clever-by-half attempts at passive-aggressive manipulation? Doubtful, I say. 

The more Benjamin/David changes, the more Braddock/Sumner remains the same. First time around, he left the pieces of a family’s shattered love and trust in his wake. Now he’s left a house full of mangled, bloody bodies.

Running away yet again from a tragedy of his own making, no matter what name he’s hiding behind, the dude’s a one-man wrecking ball and the older he gets, the more destructive he becomes.

“Hello darkness, my old friend”. 

Indeed.

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