I have a real hard time with dog movies. I cried super hard at the scene in John Wick that instigates the rest of the movie (YOU KNOW that scene). I’ve never even seen Marley & Me but I cried hard enough at the end scene on YouTube even without any context of the rest of the movie beforehand. Anything emotional involving humans and dogs or cats is not an easy watch for me. Therefore, I was really on the fence if I was going to see this one or not because I wasn’t sure if it was going to be something well-made and emotionally mature or if it was going to be some needless tearjerker like A Dog’s Purpose. Luckily, this film featured a lot more of the former and existed as a reflective character study that never felt oppressive in its emotional scenes and all the “feels” felt natural.
The film concerns the true story of Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), a twenty-something girl formerly from the wrong side of the tracks and now down on her luck after her best friend suddenly passed away. Seeing no other option and not desiring a lot of human contact in her life including her own mother (Edie Falco), Leavey joins the marines and then soon becomes interested in serving as a Military Police K9 handler. There she forms a bond with her new pooch Rex that fuels the rest of her life. The trailer gives a lot of the movie away but I will refrain from spoiling too much here.
As I mentioned in the opening, one of the strongest elements of this film is that it never feels like it is trying too hard to make the audience all misty-eyed. Even though I fought with that particular emotion (and it eventually worked me over to the point where I lost that battle), I never felt like the film was hammering me over the head in any kind of melodramatic fashion. That has something to do with the sharp writing and the equally great performances. Kate Mara’s Leavey character is obviously troubled by her previous life and finds solace in another creature that also depends on the emotions of the people around them. Both Leavey and Rex are tortured souls so it is only a given that they will find each other through this whole ordeal.
Kate Mara has always been something of an underrated actress and here she pulls off one of her most poignant and surprising performances yet. As she continues to grow confidence, Mara finds her acting choices in the simple change of her expressions or her posture rather than any kind of overt big choices. Another surprise in the film was rapper Common playing the part of the military superior who eventually grows attached to Leavey and provides her with the opportunity to make the switch to the K9 operation. Common is having a good year, having turned in another good performance in John Wick: Chapter 2 and really seems to have matured as an actor. Edie Falco makes the most of her screen time as Leavey’s mother in a pretty complicated relationship and thanks to both actors, those scenes never really felt cliched either. Ramon Rodriguez seemingly has a kind of thankless role but he has the charisma and the chemistry with Mara to make it work and I also enjoyed the brief turn by Tom Felton as a fellow K9 officer.
You’re probably asking by now – but is the dog cute? Of course! The dog is just as important a choice as the human actors and he is a perfect mix of affectionate, loyal and intimidating. Every moment between Mara and Rex felt so organic and lifelike and that was the main crux of all the emotional impact the film makes on its audience. Along with all the incredible emotion of the film, there are also some pretty strong gritty representations of war and the scenes involving the K9 unit carefully making its way through minefields and several enemy units up ahead makes for some strong tension and nail-biting sequences.
So if you’re looking for some great war sequences, strong emotion without pandering and some solid acting from everyone on-board you can go no wrong with another strong film this year in Megan Leavey.
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)