Dog Plays Fast and Loose with the Wounds of War

With a title as blunt and unadorned as Dog (in theaters February 18), a film could go in any number of directions. Dog of War would limit it to something brute and militaristic. That Darn Dog would evoke a madcap comedy. And The Power of the Dog is, of course, already taken. The filmmakers of Dog—screenwriters Reid Carolin and Brett Rodriguez, co-directors Carolin and Channing Tatum, who also stars—recognize that ambiguity, and attempt to set their film exploring its many dimensions. This approach pays off on occasion, but mostly puts the viewer in an apprehensive crouch, as one might when encountering a wayward stray whose kindness cannot be trusted.

This is a military story, about a decommissioned canine combatant who must be brought to the funeral of her former Army Ranger handler. She’s got some dog version of PTSD, it seems, which puts her in unhappy, but eventually valuable, company with the former Ranger tasked with bringing her to the cemetery. He’s Briggs, who’s been placed out of military and private security circulation following a wartime head injury whose effects include migraines and intense disorientation. Briggs is determined to nail down a lucrative job in diplomatic security, but his one-time Army captain says he won’t sign off on his medical readiness unless Briggs escorts Lulu, the dog, on her final mission of mourning.

Thus Dog is a road movie, chronicling the pair’s odyssey from Washington State to the Mojave desert. They encounter some idiosyncratic folks along the way, get into mild misadventures, and—as one expects them to—bond over their shared psychic pain. Lulu is sweet but troubled, ditto Briggs. Though he’s also got a flinty soldier’s edge to him, a surly worldview that is used to complicate the film’s politics.

Dog is certainly pro-soldier, but it may not exactly be pro-military, or pro-war. The film soberly acknowledges veterans’ emotional and physical struggles, related to the ruin of their harrowing deployment in Afghanistan. But Dog also offers up some trappings of modern civilian culture—social justice concerns, environmental activism, sexual consent discourse—as stuff that would seem obviously frivolous to anyone who’s been in the shit. Dog is proud of Briggs’s roughneck detachment, even as it frames it as an effect of his alienating years in combat.

Women in Dog (human ones, anyway) are mostly depicted as flighty or stupid. A Middle Eastern man who is mauled by Lulu because she has been trained to aggress upon people who look like him is ultimately made to be the bigger man, honoring Briggs’s service as if to forgive his entire outfit for its many sins committed abroad. Lulu is most easily calmed when Briggs pops in a DVD of her “greatest hits,” a compilation of bodycam footage of her attacking Afghans. This is addressed with more of a wry smirk—treated as an odd doggy quirk—than anything else.

The tangled morality of Dog is, at least, grimly intriguing. Its ambivalence about what Briggs and Lulu have experienced and have caused—torn between the heroism and the horror—does effectively capture the current outlook on America’s past 20-plus years of foreign folly. We can be sympathetic to these specific lives and the hurt they carry around, while realizing the disaster it was all in service of, and the hurt they’re responsible for. Can’t we? I appreciate that Dog is neither pat nor conclusive in its depiction of its protagonists, human and canine—it’s at least a change of pace from the smoothed over, one-sided war trauma narratives we’ve seen on film plenty of times in recent years.

Still, Dog’s vacillations from swaggering silliness (and sentiment) to menacing patriotism make for a roughshod film. Its tone shifts are more frustrating than dynamic; just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on what the movie is maybe trying to say, it veers somewhere else. I suppose that could be an asset—why must everything be so programmatic? Look at last summer’s Stillwater, for example: a strange and ever-mutating movie that probed the conflicts of American chauvinism and its effects on the world with such unnerving insight. But Dog is clumsy in that same juggling act, too often falling back on the well-worn clichés of the tough-guy therapy genre instead of chasing some of its more unsettling insinuations into the murk.

What can be gleaned from the movie for sure is Tatum’s movie-star magnetism. Dog marks the actor’s first lead role in a live-action film in nearly five years, and is a good reminder of his jockish, solicitous, slightly smarmy appeal. He is as adept as ever at playing the asshole we shouldn’t love but do, despite our best reservations; he’s funny, and charming, and handles the wordiness of Dog’s script with a nimbleness that runs counter to his seeming lunkishness. This is an old Tatum trick, but it still works well, even when Dog takes on faint, acrid whiffs of vanity-project preening. Tatum shrewdly adds notes of danger and volatility to his portrait, ones that begin to tell a deeper story. If only the movie were willing to join him.

It’s unclear how Tatum and Carolin split up directorial duties. In whatever combination they worked, they’ve managed moments of gentle visual beauty and bracing tension. (Is there a more grating and alarming sound than a dog furiously barking on end?) The great film composer Thomas Newman does invaluable work, his compositions gracefully leading us to pockets of feeling that would otherwise go unreached. Dog is slickly mounted, crafted with a care for detail that distinguishes it from many of its sentimental dog movie brethren.

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