Trailers don’t always give the best impression of what a film actually is.
Sometimes it’s because the studio is attempting to trick potential viewers by showing the best clips in order to maximize profits. Other times, it’s simply because they don’t have any actual clue what kind of movie they have on their hands.
This is especially problematic for first-time directors, who have to focus on so many different filmmaking elements that they’re unable to home in on a specific tone or try to make their film one genre, when in reality it’s best served as something else entirely.
Such is the case for Dog, the co-directorial debut of Reid Carolin and Channing Tatum, working off a screenplay written by Carolin and starring Tatum as a former Army Ranger with traumatic brain injuries who is tasked with bringing his fellow Ranger to the funeral of a comrade hundreds of miles away.
The catch here is that Tatum’s partner for this road film is a Belgian Malinois and while Carolin and Tatum are hoping for laughter with a bit of character building, Dog is at heart a deeply introspective drama with the occasional lighthearted moment to bring levity to weighty concepts like post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, and other mental health issues that plague returning military personnel.
In many ways, it reminds of a PG-13 version of Richard Linklater’s heavy road drama Last Flag Flying where the bond between former soldiers comes together over a lengthy trip to a funeral. Dog is exceptionally emotional in key moments as viewers learn more about Tatum’s Jackson and his health issues.
Tatum delivers some of his most considered dramatic work as Jackson and while it’s natural for him to ease into the more comedic physical elements of the screenplay, it’s clear from the outset that Tatum’s mind is more attuned to Jackson’s fragile emotional state. Tatum plays the part of a wounded soldier trying to toughen up beyond his means well and the conflict running through Jackson’s mind in the more somber moments of the film wear on Tatum’s face in a way that pulls the audience into his consciousness.
It’s tricky to pull off a two-hander film like this when one of the main protagonists is an animal, but Carolin and Tatum do a solid job of framing the three Belgian Malinois who portray Lulu in such a way that viewers can feel the dog’s emotions in deep, sad eyes and long panting breaths. The camera is often placed back and tilted up several feet away to make Lulu feel bigger than she probably is and also to help put her on more of a level playing field with Tatum.
Tatum does a fantastic job of showcasing Jackson’s evolving bond with Lulu, which can prove problematic when the scene partner can’t really conceptualize what’s really going on and help to give the actor something to work with emotionally. But throughout, the relationship between man and dog feels genuine, which is the key conceit needed to make the entire film work.
One of the most underrated things about Dog is the excellent use of the soundtrack, especially in the third act with the Alabama Shakes song “Hold On” anchoring a perfect edited scene transition on a downbeat as well as Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” helping to set the tone for the final moments.
While it certainly won’t be at the top of any year-end list and it’s wildly mislabeled as a more comedic film than what appears on screen, Dog is a pleasant surprise during a time when studios usually release their worst films and is something worth taking a chance on in theaters.