Year of the Dog
2007Director: Mike White
Cast: Laura Dern, Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Shannon
POILER ALERT: If you're really convinced that critical discussion of a film ought to exclude plot details about the final third of said film, beware.
For his debut film, successful writer and first-time director Mike White (School of Rock, The Good Girl) has crafted a deeply offbeat and seemingly quite misanthropic little picture. While the ads and trailers suggested a movie about people who love dogs, Year of the Dog is actually the story of dog owner Peggy's (Molly Shannon) transformation from a shy, congenial dog owner to a radical, somewhat strident vegan and animal rights activist. Neither romantic comedy (nobody gets hitched) nor tragedy (no humans die), it's more a depiction of one woman's solitary journey inward, outward, or perhaps leftward, politically speaking.
After a gentle slow-motion opening scene at the dog park, White's camera settles in to render Peggy's alienation from her fellow humans via angles and framing. Using head-on medium shots and close-ups, White isolates Peggy in the frame, gazing placidly and bemusedly at her conversational partners, all of whom embody one or more humorous neuroses or personality flaws. Often, as in the scenes featuring Pier (Thomas McCarthy) and Bret (Laura Dern), Peggy's brother and sister-in-law, she stands or sits conspicuously alone across from a couple or group. The soundtrack (think Badlands-lite) is buoyant and rather cheerful in a restrained fashion, and the mood is, at least on the surface, pleasant, but the undercurrent suggested by the images and dialogue is one of unease.
Though it may not be immediately recognizable, White synchronizes Peggy's inner state with her canine companions. Her first dog, Pencil, is appropriately calm and loving. Once Pencil dies from unintentional poisoning, Peggy's life starts to head off course, though at first it's not apparent. Her second pet, Valentine, comes from an abusive home, which spawned some "behavioral issues," but Peggy agrees he deserves a second chance. As indicated by the dog's name, Peggy falls in love through his adoption, though she is stung in the end by her foiled attempt at romance and, soon after, inevitably bitten by the dog.
Her unrequited love, Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), exposes her to the twin gospels of Veganism and Animal Rights, both of which she takes to heart quickly and profoundly. Late in the second act, Peggy leaves Valentine in Newt's care while she goes to babysit overnight for Pier and Bret while they spend a night away on New Year's Eve. Against their wishes, Peggy indoctrinates the kids by taking them to a humane farm where they also learn about more traditional and cruel methods of keeping livestock and poultry. She even manages, after getting tipsy on some celebratory champagne, to destroy Laura's extensive collection of furs. Though up to this point her relatives have been generally indulgent of her quirks, they finally reprimand her, and, in parallel, Valentine is put to sleep for mauling another dog.
Distraught, Peggy lies to the workers at the pound about her credentials and snatches fifteen dogs from the jaws of death, adopting them all and creating mass insanity at her home. Finally at one with herself and completely at odds with society, Peggy drops out, quitting her job, packing up and heading off on a bus to protest against animal testing in Dallas.
This last part exemplifies what seems so confusing about Year of the Dog. The writer/director appears at points to be chiding Peggy for so aggressively foisting her new-found politics on others, such as the scene where Pier and Bret laugh uproariously upon discovering that, for Christmas, Peggy has by proxy adopted and renamed farm animals in their name, Pier a pig and Bret a cow. Or the incriminating forged checks Peggy signs in her boss's name at work to send to animal rights organizations: bravery or foolishness? Indeed, Peggy even drops out of normal society altogether at the end, the only alternative for her to continuing her former existence and eventually going insane.
Publicity, however, reveals that Mike White is himself a vegan and animal lover, and as such this seems to be a semi-autobiographical project. Are we supposed to be in on the joke when Newt takes Peggy to a vegan restaurant and wows her with the seemingly hilarious list of fake meat dishes, such as the Seitan Sloppy Joe, or is the humor unintentional? Why is no link established between the irresponsibility of keeping too many pets and the corollary of dog pounds and euthanasia, a form of animal cruelty as prevalent though perhaps not as obvious as, say, breeding battery chickens?
It's not hard to admire White and Shannon for making such an odd little film about these issues, but at the same time it's difficult to emerge from the experience anything but confused.
Year of the Dog is currently in limited release.
By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-05-11