de facto film reviews 3 stars

The French director Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) is one of the more idiosyncratic film makers working in mainstream movies. His latest work, Dogman, is another unusual flight of fancy, with style, violence and hints of substance. It does not completely work, but it is fascinating for both what does and what does not, and what does work, is the lead performance of Cale Landry Jones. Had Jones given this same performance in a less out there work, there would surely be Oscar buzz. He is just that good.

The film centers on Doug, a drag queen who is more than meets the eye. Arrested with a truck full of dogs, Doug soon spins out the story of his life to Evelyn, a psychiatrist sent by the state of New Jersey, to determine…well, it is never quite clear. His competency? To dig for information on him to present to the state for prosecution? Oh, yeah. He is being prosecuted, because…well, again, why? There are several reasons. It could be the dogs, and it could be the violence that occurred earlier that evening. It could be the many robberies he had been involved in, using his dogs as accomplices, with Doug as a Fagin-figure hiding in the shadows. Sadly, the film does not make it clear which of the many crimes he has committed, he is being held for. Is it all of them? Why do we never see an actual detective with him?

DogMan Courtesy Briarcliff Entertainment

Doug, as he recounts to Evlyn, was “raised” by a cruel father and weak mother. “My mother was weak” he explains to the therapist. “In the animal kingdom, that gets you killed, but among human beings, it is a survival mechanism. I don’t hold any ill toward her.” Doug, does, however, harbor many ill feelings toward his brother and father, who locked him in a kennel, apparently for years. This is what `caused Doug to bond with canines, to a degree that borders on a super power. Imagine if The Crow was crossed with the Pied Piper of Hamlin, except there were dozens of dogs. You begin to see the situation. You also understand Doug, who is clearly not all there, but also, quite clearly, the best person in the film. We empathize with him because of Jone’s work, and how he lets us see inside him, beyond what the meager script provides.

Doug, you see, was injured when his father shot him, blowing off one of his fingers and lodging a bullet in his spinal column. “I can stand. I can take a few steps. Each step moves the bullet, which would empty out my marrow. That would not be good” Doug explains to Evelyn, as he progresses through his life story. We discover he had an unrequited love from the woman that gave him his love of performance and absconded with his dogs, after the state intended to shut down the shelter he ran. It is at this point he became a vigilante, someone who both robbed the rich but also used his dogs to do favors for the downtrodden, one of which leads a gang to his lodgings. All of this is given just enough lead that you know what is happening, but not enough, if not for Jones, to actually care about what occurs.

DogMan | Courtesy Briarcliff Entertainment

It is this act of invasion which precedes the opening of the film, but which is delayed in detailing until almost the end. This is both a bug and a feature, in this work. If not for Caleb Landry Jones magnetic performance, allowing us to see fear, pain, empathy, guilt, anger and concern, along with a convincing set of scenes in drag, as both Marilyn Monroe and Edith Piaf, Jones does not just steal the show. He carries it.

This is not a first-rate script. It is, in all honestly, probably not even second rate. In one unfortunate scene, Evelyn informs Doug he could be charged with the death penalty, a type of sentencing the state of New Jersey no longer provides for. It seems, as with all too many of Besson’s work, like something a child dreamed up, which somehow made it on the big screen. “wouldn’t it be cool if an abused kid grew up to have a pack of dogs that were his friends, and they could pull capers together?” If that sounds like a joke, it is not, as that is almost precisely what the film is like, as you watch it. Except…Caleb Landry Jones, who, again, turns in a performance that manages to find the depth the script lacks. He is so good here, you will forget, at times, what the film is happening, plot-wise, because you have become so engrossed with what he does with the frame he fills.

The film does exist in three parts. The first, a fairly standard origin story, the second a middling section of wandering and gathering, but that third act is where it will either reach you, or lose you. It is pure Besson, with images worthy of any big budget action film, and a style borrowed from comics and earlier works, like his own Fifth Element, as well as Attack the Block and Oldboy, among others. Yet, for all the style and energy here, it undercuts what has to now been a strange, low-key, and at times, unnerving character piece. I will not spoil the exact details of the final moments of the film, but will say that they both work and do not work, feeling heavy handed and yet as though that was the only way it could all end. A puzzling film, in some regards, but with a lead performance which deserves to be seen and, perhaps, gain some year end award buzz.

DOGMAN  opens in limited theaters Friday, March 29th