2024, R, 113 min. Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Caleb Landry Jones, Jojo T. Gibbs, Marisa Berenson, James Payton, Christopher Denham.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 29, 2024

Luc Besson has always been fascinated by outré characters. Not simply outrageous (although Gary Oldman's ravening psychopath in Léon and glass-domed wannabe geocidal dictator in The Fifth Element come close) but the more unusual the better. It’s an oddity, then, that his protagonists are usually so mundane. Sometimes, that works – the assassin as working schmo in Léon, the cab driver as unwitting hero in The Fifth Element – but often, as in the tedious SF epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, they are the least interesting part of the story.

It’s impossible to say the same about Douglas – Doug for short – the antihero of the uncategorizable DogMan. A film of immense contradictions and baffling coherency, it may be Besson’s most interesting work to date, because he finally embraces the outcast.

DogMan could have simply been a bizarre action flick (and it undoubtedly is in places), but primarily it’s a character-driven tragedy. Set in a version of America born only of its own myths about itself – part Southern Gothic, part revenge thriller, part Disney doggy flick – the fictional Newark of Doug’s life is nowhere and nowhen. Doug is born of myth, too: first seen dressed in Marlyn Monroe’s pink figure-hugger from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, bloodied and in a truck filled with good doggos, fleeing the scene of a massacre. He’s not exactly reticent about explaining how he got there, a story that goes back to a childhood torn straight from a whisky-fueled brainstorming session between Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor. After recounting one particularly ghoulish and tragic incident inflicted upon his younger self (played with Dickensian waif pallor by Powell), he tells police psychiatrist Evelyn (Gibbs), “I do believe in God, but I think at that point in my life the question I asked myself was, ‘Did God believe in me?’”

Besson’s self-penned script is filled with such heady bons mots and musings from Doug as he recounts a life of pain and misery from the police interrogation room: abused, crippled, abandoned, unloved, the constant whipping boy of a merciless world who becomes a man who uses a pack of stray dogs to inflict street justice on bullies and thugs while also performing Edith Piaf songs in a drag show. None of this is played for laughs. When the dogs help Doug make a pie before mounting a jewel heist, it should be stupid. Instead, it’s heartwarming, this story of rejects together (until you start to consider Besson’s own outsider status due to his long history of allegations of sexual impropriety and assault).

None of this would work without the central performance from Caleb Landry Jones as Doug. It’s hard to see him as the same man that played weaselly sadist Jeremy in Get Out or soft-spoken clerk Red Welby in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s a performance that makes sense knowing that Jones once shared a screen with Philip Seymour Hoffman in God's Pocket, because it’s almost impossible to imagine another actor except maybe that lost genius giving as much of themselves to the part. It’s the same visceral yet cerebral style that Hoffman had, and it’s needed to make any sense of Doug.

What this possibly could have read like on the page is almost unimaginable. So much will be up for discussion and interpretation, not least Doug’s gender identity and sexuality, a question highlighted by his dalliances with an insurance investigator (Denham). But that’s all part of a hyperstylized discourse about identity, masks, inner selves, and societal norms, made from a patchwork of John Wick, Willard, Cecil B. Demented, Bad Lieutenant, Turner & Hooch, and La Cage aux Folles.

Without Jones, this would have been madness, and much of the rest of the cast (Gibbs in particular) struggle with its tonal inconsistency. With Jones, it’s a weirdly moving, even charming depiction of a man refusing to rail at God but instead using his broken gifts for redemption. Comparisons have been made to the Joker, but the way Doug uses his resources to do a little good in the world makes him a gutter Batman. It’s a wild, volatile mess, and maybe if Besson had more forceful collaborators to keep him on the rails, DogMan would have been a conventionally better film. At least, perhaps, the script would have pulled together more of its themes of faith, societal norms, violence, culpability, contrition, and inner nature. But then it would not be what it is, and there is nothing like DogMan.

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More Luc Besson Films
International ass-kickery with a strong but beautiful female lead? Luc Besson, back on his sh*t again.

Matthew Monagle, June 28, 2019

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Luc Besson's latest is a kaleidoscopic mess

Steve Davis, July 21, 2017

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DogMan, Luc Besson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jojo T. Gibbs, Marisa Berenson, James Payton, Christopher Denham

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