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Venice 2023 review: 'Dogman' - Luc Besson's 'comeback' movie is all bark and very little bite

Dogman Copyright Venice Film Festival
Copyright Venice Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
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“When man is in trouble, God sends him a dog.”

Wise words from French author, poet, and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine, who is doubtlessly spinning around in his grave like a rotisserie chicken at the fact his quote was used in Luc Besson’s Dogman.

It’s not a complete dog’s dinner of a film, but considering his most recent output (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Anna) has rightly been blasted as tripe and, more troublingly, eclipsed by some rape allegations – for which he was subsequently cleared – Dogman is far from a successful comeback.

We meet Doug (Caleb Landry Jones), whose name is one letter away from spelling ‘dog’. 

See, it’s clever. 

Bound to a wheelchair due to a gunshot wound inflicted by his cruel father, the young man is arrested in a Marilyn Monroe dress, bruised and bleeding, and driving a van filled with dogs.

He’s brought in for questioning, with lead interrogator being psychiatrist Evelyn (the underserved Jojo T. Gibbs). The two get chatting, and thus unfolds several chronological flashbacks showing us the abuse and neglect Doug suffered as a child at the hands of his religiously fanatic pops and brother (the latter who hangs up a banner on Doug’s cage  which reads “In the Name of God”), and how our titular protagonist got in the crosshairs of a Latino gang boss called El Verdugo (John Charles Aguilar).

Oh look! ‘God’ spelled backwards is... How sodding capable this film is.

Bit by bit, we piece together the story of a dog-loving child who has a special connection with pups, a young man whose romantic interest didn’t love him back (sniff), and a man who found solace in becoming a drag queen and an avenging angel who believes in the redistribution of wealth. Oh, and his dogs continue to understand and obey him at all times.

Brass tacks: Dogman is a nothing thriller, a creatively barren bit of fluff which takes it cues from The Silence of the Lambs and, more glaringly, Todd Phillip’s Joker.

It feels wrong mentioning these films in relation to the derivative Dogman. OK, maybe less so for Joker, which comedian Melissa Villaseñor accurately described as “White Male Rage – The Movie” on SNL. Dogman flirts with the same description, but does manage to escape that particular label thanks to two strong redeeming factors.

First, the pooches. 

Such good boys. And they are good boys. Yes, they are – hmm hmm hmm, yes yes yes.

Second, Caleb Landry Jones, who successfully embodies all the strength and complexity of his character. It’s a softly-spoken performance that deserved a far stronger vehicle. Granted, he’s clearly been told to deliver his own Arthur Fleck, but Jones remains immensely watchable and does make Doug his own.

But whereas Joker treated its audience like fools with a story operating under the misapprehension it was actually trying to say something, at least it tried. Dogman is different, mostly because its premise feels like it’s been scribbled on the back of a coaster. There is some schlocky fun to be had at points – especially in the doggie jewel heists, that Home Alone -style finale, and the Édith Piaf / Marlene Dietrich drag show scenes. But even those moments have a slightly discomforting feel to them; yes, Doug finds acceptance in the drag community, but you can’t help but feel that Besson draws a line between formative abuse and the fluidity of Doug’s gender expression.

It is great to see some genre films in Venice's varied Competition this year, but the only way Dogman could have truly worked was if the director had had the instinct to make his revenge fantasy lean more towards its trashy credentials. Then, and only then, could there have been hope for salvation as a future cult classic.

As it is, it’s far from a howling success. 

Dogman premiered in Competition at the Venice Film Festival and is set to be released in French cinemas late September.

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