Despite a terrific lead turn from Caleb Landry Jones, Luc Besson’s stylish drama/thriller Dogman just isn’t original enough to be memorable.
There’s a theory that people that own dogs end up becoming like their pets, and why not? Dogs are generally friendly, loyal, lovable creatures (We all hope we exude Golden Retriever energy). Dogman, Luc Besson’s exercise in wound-licking after the bruising experience of Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets, takes the idea to its most extreme conclusion. In coming back down to Earth, Besson clearly hasn’t lost his visual style, but it’s a pity he’s using it to service some pretty hackneyed material.
Dogman starts promisingly, as police pull over a van on a rain-soaked night to find Douglas (Caleb Landry Jones), wearing a Marilyn Monroe ensemble and carrying a host of dogs, all breeds, shapes and sizes. As we learn, these are his ‘babies’: like Douglas, they have been abandoned and resided on the fringes until he took them in and trained them to be his friends and henchmen. The basic plot bears more than a little resemblance to Willard, the 1971 thriller (and its surprisingly effective 2003 remake) that sees a lonely man befriend and train hordes of rats to the same ends. This icky premise ground Dogman firmly in horror territory; there are visual nods to the likes of The Silence of the Lambs, while Douglas’ backstory of child abuse and abandonment reads like ‘serial killer profile 101’.
Police psychologist Evelyn (Jojo T. Gibbs) comes to interview Douglas in custody, and as Douglas recalls his abusive childhood, we get some troubling but effective scenes of abuse and abandonment. However, as the story continues, Dogman’s horror throughline begins to fray. As Douglas grows and tries to find his place in the world, we get stories and segues that go through all kinds of genres and tones, but the film never settles on a consistent register. Over its near-two hour runtime, we get horror, thriller, revenge flick, gangster action, even a little romance and some moments of comedy. They sit uneasily together, but Besson seems less interested in ensuring his script ideas cohere than in offering himself some interesting visual opportunities. Even then, Dogman isn’t consistent, as the lighting styles pivot as wildly as the tone.
Despite its inconsistencies, Dogman’s heart is in the right place. It feels deeply for its lead character. His search for family sees Douglas pinball foster homes, a kindly drama teacher (Grace Palma), hispanic mobsters, a drag club and a crooked insurance agent (Christopher Denham, getting some unlikely laughs out of this material). If some of the portrayals of these groups seems stereotypical, you certainly can’t fault the performances by the dogs themselves. Even without learning their names, we get to see their personalities shine thanks to nimble camera moves and sterling work by the film’s dog trainers. For all its issues, Dogman is too nimble to be boring. Douglas could be having a moment of introspection in one scene, before launching into his newfound career as a drag performer syncing to Marlene Dietrich in the next.
Douglas, the Dogman, is an abused child grown into a paraplegic loner. Playing this part needs someone who can inspire empathy and skepticism in one go. Enter Caleb Landry Jones, so often cast as the unusual-looking support, promoted to a rare lead role. Anyone who saw Antiviral or Nitram knows he can command a screen, and he absolutely delivers in this misfit role. He has to balance restricted movement (Douglas uses leg braces when not in a wheelchair) with unbridled internality, while also interacting with his canine co-stars, and he does so magnificently. While Gibbs offers solid support, Jones is in 99% of the film, and without his commitment, it would float away on its own sense of importance.
Jones would likely have some awards buzz behind him for this if the film could match him. However, by the end, the most feeling Dogman offers is déjà-vu. We’ve seen this story done before, and often done better. Between the psychologist interviews, the loner backstory and his snazzy choice of outfit, Dogman appears to dwell in the shadow of Joker. Dogman is arguably a better version of Joker, but it’s still just a dog chasing cars.
Dogman premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will be released on digital & Blu-Ray in the UK on March 11, 2024, in select US theaters on March 29, and nationwide on April 5.