Dog Movies For Adults
Dogs have appeared on the silver screen since the dawning days of cinema, when their tails wagged silently but joyfully in front of audiences, making viewers laugh, cry, and clap with delight. Dogs are our closest animal companions, and many hours of footage have been devoted to them – on smartphones, movie cameras and everything in between. Nearly as long as humans have walked upright, dogs have padded alongside, too often paying a steep price for this proximity through abuse and neglect. These animals arouse our empathy, but they are subjected to our exploitative nature all the same, a reminder that humans are just animals, fighting to live, sometimes at any cost. Dogs are fodder for rich, emotional stories, but these tend to be aimed at children rather than adults. However, there is the rare film that examines the relationships between dogs and people with an eye to more universal themes. The results range from heartfelt to horrific but are always provocative.
Cujo (Dir. Lewis Teague, 1983)
In Lewis Teague’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s infamous story, Cujo chases a rabbit to its burrow, then gets far more than he bargained for when he receives a bite from a rabid bat. What follows is the terrifying transformation of a once gentle dog into a demonic killing machine. Cujo quickly becomes a vicious killer, mindless and hell-bent on slaughtering anyone he comes across. His front lips lift ominously, trembling over bladelike teeth. Features that were once endearing – the dopey, drooping face and recessed eyes – become feral and grotesque.
The line that separates a family’s docile St. Bernard from a ferocious killer is ultimately fragile – a reality that holds true for people as well as animals. In both a figurative and real sense, humans are biologically teetering on the edge of monstrosity, our bodies and minds performing careful maintenance to keep the balance intact. But things go wrong. People snap unexpectedly, overcome by disease or mental illness; beloved pets become rabid and change in front of your eyes.
Teague’s Cujo isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but the film leaves you with a deep sense of unease that a darkness lurks beneath the surface of every living thing around us. It could only take a second for the walls we’ve built to come tumbling down, exposing the wildness within.
White God (Dir. Kornél Mundruczó, 2014)
White God is about one dog’s awakening to the cruelty of life outside his own insular world. When a new ordinance makes it illegal to own a mixed-breed dog, Hagen, a mutt, is cast out and forced to face a life on the streets where a new danger lurks around every corner. Hagen escapes a shelter where he faces extermination only to end up worse off than before, with a captor who tortures him. The abuse makes Hagen scared, confused, and violent – the perfect recipe for a fighting dog. It’s in the midst of his first dog fight that Hagen runs off, seemingly disgusted with what he is being forced to do to his opponent.
With a dog at the center of its story (and a group of dogcatchers as part of its crew of human villains), White God is reminiscent of animal movies like Homeward Bound, aimed at children. Mundruczó treats Hagen, a dog who is in all respects the protagonist, as he would a person, with close-up, point-of-view and reaction shots that emphasize how he responds to the world around him. This camerawork allows viewers to empathize with Hagen more effectively and also establishes (or imposes) thought and intent in his actions, giving him human characteristics.
In White God, the dogs are used primarily as a metaphor for the downtrodden, creating a potent allegory about discrimination. In the film’s standout sequence, a sea of feral dogs swarms the streets, inciting a violent uprising against their human oppressors. It’s at this point where the film departs most radically from anything resembling a kids’ movie.
Mundruczó’s film demonstrates how experiences can transform us – a truism that holds whether you’re human or animal – and how devastating the results of such a transformation can be.
White Dog (Dir. Samuel fuller, 1982)
While the unnamed dog is a central image Samuel Fuller’s 1982 film White Dog, he is not so much a character as a metaphor for hate-driven violence, leaving a trail of blood and fear in his wake.
Julie (Kristy McNichol) accidentally hits a white German Shepard with her car. Remorseful, she takes him into her home, which turns out to be a lucky break for both of them. That night, the animal protects Julia from an intruder who attacks her. After this act of heroism, she becomes deeply attached to him, as any animal lover would. But Julie is dismayed to discover the dog continues to attack at random, even when unprovoked. Soon enough, the awful pattern becomes clear: Someone has trained the dog to kill black people.
Desperate to fix him, Julie takes the dog to a Hollywood animal trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), a black man. Keys makes it his personal mission to reverse the dog’s training, pouring heart, mind, and body into the task of deprograming him, as if his success would become proof that hatred itself can be defeated.
But the mission is doomed to fail. Violence is the driving force of the white dog: He is merely a weapon. The trainer discovers this force can’t be taken away, only displaced. Once finally “cured” of his desire to attack Keys, the dog simply turns his gaze to the old, white man standing next to him.
There is nothing as pure or as unfathomable as hatred, and this purity is perhaps what makes it so incurable – in the same way that matter cannot be taken away, merely shifted from place to place. In the film’s most lasting image, the white dog barrels toward the camera with its teeth bared and nose wrinkled in a snarl, a terrifying predator, stripped down to its instinct to kill, and we are right in his path.
Wendy and Lucy (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
Kelly Reichardt’s quiet examination of the bond between a homeless woman and her dog tests the boundaries between wilderness and human settlements, a theme similarly explored in her earlier film, Old Joy. Wendy (Michelle Williams) and Lucy are both strays, caught between domesticity and the wild. Wendy is on her way to Alaska to find work when she is stranded in a small town. When Lucy goes missing, Wendy’s life begins to unravel completely. Reichardt portrays the relationship between a woman and her dog exactly as she would a human relationship, illustrating just how strong the connection between animals and humans can be and that it’s equally worthy of capturing on film.
Kelly Reichardt is no stranger to the human-canine relationship; her dog, Lucy, stars in Wendy and Lucy as well as Old Joy (The small production company for the latter also happens to be called “Lucy is my Darling LLC”). Reichardt’s adoration for Lucy shines through in both of these movies. In the way that certain director’s love to point the camera at favorite performers, Reichardt’s camera shows a deep affection for Lucy and Williams alike and treats them with a frankness and objectivity that puts them on equal footing – just two friends wandering the earth together. Like Williams, Lucy roams freely in the frame, to be herself, letting her normal expressions and behaviors shine.
It’s easy to fall in love with Lucy on screen and just as easy to feel the ache of losing her, which inevitably occurs in the movie. In the final scene, Wendy finds Lucy behind a fenced-in yard and says goodbye forever, leaving the dog in the hands of owners who are better equipped to care for her. Yet we also know this moment signals that Wendy too will inevitably return to a structured life with a job and permanent shelter. While she will be safe, she will no longer be free.
When filmmakers focus their lenses on these animals, the result is compelling cinema that gives viewers a more meaningful glimpse into the side of animal and human relationships that scientists still haven’t been able to fully reveal – the often ineffable way our differences suddenly dissolve and enrich us when they emerge again, how it’s so strange to develop a relationship with an animal that looks and behaves so different than you, yet at the same time, completely natural and inevitable.
Scientific research is finally beginning to dismantle the rigid dichotomy between humans and other animals. Animals experience rich emotional lives that humans are only beginning to understand, but as our closest companions, dogs are a perfect starting point. When we share our lives with dogs, we don’t simply see our emotions and intellect reflected in their behavior. Instead, we learn these are capacities our separate species have always shared. Humans are animals, which means we are capable both of unthinking brutality and a helpless love for one another. Sometimes these impulses exist together in one moment. The ongoing struggle with this duality is what’s called living.