Sunday, June 23, 2024

Movie Review: ‘DogMan’ is Besson Off His Leash

Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Jojo T. Gibbs, Christopher Denham

Synopsis: A boy, bruised by life, finds his salvation through the love of his dogs.

Roger Ebert said of Nicolas Roeg’s Track 29, “Somebody asked me if I liked this movie, and I had to answer that I did not, but then I realized once again what an inadequate word “like” is. The reason I didn’t like it is that the film is unlikable – perhaps deliberately so. But that doesn’t make it a bad film, and it probably makes it a more interesting one… it is bad-tempered. But not every film is required to massage us with pleasure. Some are allowed to be abrasive and frustrating, to make us think.” Ebert’s quote would be germane to Luc Besson’s DogMan if the film was setting out to make the audience think. However, Besson decides on unlikeable, frustrating, and doing all the “thinking” for the audience. DogMan is blunt-force abrasive, but it is possible at least to find sections interesting.

Douglas (Caleb Landry Jones) is a man whose tortured existence means the only pack he can trust are his preternaturally clever “children” — a motley crew of smooth criminal canines. Brought up in a strangely timeless Newark by a violently dysfunctional family, Doug has more ‘anti-hero’ origin stories than a continually re-written comic book character. Was it the moment he was caught feeding scraps to the dogs his father bred for fighting? Was it when his slack-jawed ultra-religious brother had him locked in the cage with the dogs for most of his childhood? Was it when his beloved mother finally left the cradle of filth that was his home neglecting to let him out of the cage as she departed? Or was it when his father decided to shoot the puppies Doug was protecting but instead shot off one of Doug’s fingers and left a bullet lodged in his spine which will one day kill him?

Doug is arrested in full Marilyn Monroe drag trying to flee the scene of a gang war massacre with his beloved babies, and it is up to Doctor Evelyn Decker (Jojo T. Gibbs) to work out the enigma of the fluid and adapting Dog Man through his baroque narration of his life.

Doug is polite, educated, and so well versed in the Bard his history is Shakespearean. Is he Viola, Richard II, Falstaff, or Iago? Is he Hamlet or Juliet? Avenging angel or demon from the bowels of hell? Perhaps he is all three of Macbeth’s witches? The only thing that is certain is that he is weaving constant illusions to avoid being uncovered. That, and he regards humanity as a blight because they believe they have transcended their animal instincts. “The weak are killed in nature. But they survive in humanity. For a while. God always finds his own.”

A bizarre Bildungsroman, DogMan chronicles Doug’s life as an institutionalized child who falls in love with his guidance counselor and drama teacher Salma Bailey (Grace Palma) who takes the broken boy through the whirlwind of make believe which he first experienced reading his mother’s hidden ‘Women’s Magazines.’ Through Salma, he becomes a wheelchair using Richard Burbage, Will Kemp, and Margaret Hughes. Makeup and make-believe transport him from his isolation. He is seen and admired by his previously bullying peers, but not for being himself — for being someone else. Eventually, Salma heads to Broadway leaving a heartbroken boy who will eventually find his way back to the ones he cannot abandon, and will not abandon him, his dogs.

Doug’s journey through the callousness of reality is echoed by the strays he cares for. He has no home — they have no home. He doesn’t train his children to do tricks, they simply understand what he wants. Instead, he trains himself to perform. Unable to find a job despite having a degree, Doug holes himself up in an abandoned high school with his ever-expanding fur family and by chance becomes a drag artiste doing swirling renditions of Édith Piaf (an extraordinary scene) and Marlene Dietrich in “Lili Marlene” mode. Community supported by Annie Lennoxes, Madonnas and Chers, Douglas finds liberation behind illusion. He also has a successful side hustle in high end jewelry theft carried out by his crew. None of it is about the money – he just needs enough to keep his family fed.

Insurance investigators and Latino gang-bangers all try to take Doug down and meet a grisly end. It is Willard without the horror, or Doctor Dolittle as Duela Dent. Grisly, gritty, and stylishly captured, the essence of Besson’s cinema du look heightens the choreographed violence. Fetishistic in extremis, but also peculiarly sexless.

There is God’s law and dog’s law; Douglas is an adherent to both. God sent him dogs as a panacea to soothe his suffering. “Dogs only have one flaw, they love humans.” One suspects Besson decided to make the whole film in English and film it in “America” because chien spelled backwards means nothing.

Doug’s confession to Evelyn serves a purpose to prove his existence before it is erased and to alleviate her pain. An exhausted single mother with a violent father and similarly violent ex-husband, she can’t keep from her young child; Evelyn is also in need of protection. Hence the man behind a thousand curtains comes into the light to send her an angel before he meets his fate. 

DogMan should be, in some manner, entertaining. It is darkly funny, but Besson enjoys torturing the audience through Doug’s misfortunes too much. The philosophical and ethical discussions between Doug and Evelyn are exhaustingly exposition heavy. Besson shows and over tells, never getting the balance right. For example, we see Christopher Denham’s venal and sweaty insurance adjuster stalking Doug thinking he’s captured the femme fatale; but Doug has already told Evelyn (and shown in flashbacks) his knack for manipulation and dog-eat-man war. We know exactly what is coming.

If not for Caleb Landry Jones’ wounded but bravura performance, DogMan would be near insufferable. Jones is a compelling and beguiling presence. It’s not surprising he has been previously scooped up as a villain in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. He’s also a fragile romantic interest in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium. His best roles are the ones where he is an oddball outsider such as Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral. His best role to date has been the titular character in Justin Kurzel’s Nitram. There’s something indefinable about his screen charisma. He’s a less beautiful Cillian Murphy or Christopher Abbott but whatever those two have, he also has.

Besson has never opted for subtle nor is he beyond self-plagiarism. He’s made La Femme Nikita essentially three times (the original which spawned a two remakes and two television series), as evidenced by Lucy and Anna. His best loved science-fiction film The Fifth Element he cannibalized for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. As for subtlety, although gorgeous, Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec required two cuts. One to appeal to the younger aged adventure and Gaslamp enthusiasts, and one which had our fearless heroine very often unclothed just because she’s beautiful. An entire paragraph can be written just about the Taxi and Transporter franchises. Léon: The Professional is again a topic too large to be here within encompassed.

DogMan could be construed as mash-up of Le Dernier Combat and Subway. DogMan is low budget Besson off his leash after the massively expensive flop that was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It has style to burn but substance is either blatantly telegraphed or scant.

If you crave Luc Besson’s mysteriously religious, ultra-camp, and ferocious style with Caleb Landry Jones (and the junior version of Doug) being caked in mud, blood, or pancake makeup while devising schemes like an obsessive scrapbooker and master chef: then by all means DogMan is there for the taking. Also, there are the wonderful dogs working like a finely tuned orchestra. However, be warned, the antihero revenge wish fulfilment fantasy is often sickly and sloppy. It is more a tatty wig and obvious scars than genre hybrid genius. 

Grade: C

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