Deep Thoughts On Year of the Dog


Yesterday afternoon I saw Mike White's Year of the Dog, a movie I've been looking forward to for some time now.  I think Mike White is a genius, and both The AV Club, which I generally trust, and Lisa Schwarzbaum were glowing in their praise.  Manohla Dargis loved it too.  But what struck me most as I saw it with one of my best friends, a fellow Mike White fan, is that Year of the Dog could just as easily have been titled, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace Jihad.  During the course of the movie, Peggy, as brilliantly portrayed by the criminally underrated Molly Shannon, slowly becomes ... how can I put this? ... she slowly becomes a total lunatic who sublimates her basic human desire for companionship into increasingly militant political causes.  It's by no means clear to me that Peggy's journey will end where the movie ends, in a bus ride to a peaceful demonstration.  I fear it will end somewhere far more tragic.

Thanks to a fateful encounter with a gentle man, the similarly-excellent Peter Sarsgaard's Newt, Peggy directs her grief over the loss of her beloved dog outward, into a rage against animal cruelty, a rage that actually become murderous. I have to wonder: is this all an elaborate prank by Mike White?  I was expecting an intelligent comedy about loneliness, and about how the love of animals can both enrich and warp our lives.  Instead Year of the Dog is a moving, intense, mostly funny but occasionally chilling look at humanity at its worst.  Peggy's best friend is a deeply clueless woman, unattuned to the awfulness of her philandering lover.  Her brother and sister-in-law are a loathsome, narrow-minded upper-middle-class caricature.  Though very kind during an important (murderous moment), they're also incapable of reckoning with the intensity of Peggy's increasingly violent extremism.  That's why it's so baffling that reviewers are treating Year of the Dog like the cute character study I imagined it would be.  Nathan Rabin writes,

Like a distaff Marty, Dog indelibly chronicles the emotional thaw of a woman seemingly resigned to living life quietly on the sidelines until fate spurs her into action.

And yet where does Rabin detect an "emotional thaw"?  I could see it in her vulnerability, and her willingness to acknowledge her affection for Newt.  But the surprising twist at the end suggests that she's forsaken the real love of her family and friends for love of jihad, in the name of animals she's never met.  I'm a believer in the humane treatment of animals.  This is part of why I increasingly choose to eat Quorn and other meat-substitutes in lieu of the real thing.  I look forward to a time when synthetic meat-substitutes render industrial agriculture a thing of the past.  (Also, as New York recently pointed out, it tastes almost exactly like a Chicken McNugget.  Someone page heaven and tell them I'm already there.)  I buy the idea that our sphere of moral concern has steadily expanded over time, and that it ought to include thinking, feeling non-human animals.  I certainly don't believe in stabbing people because they may or may not have inadvertently poisoned Pencil with snail-bait. Dargis has a similarly generous take.

In its broad outline, “Year of the Dog” is the story of a woman who goes slightly bonkers and becomes an animal-rights advocate, not because she’s bonkers, but because the love of animals is where she finally finds her peace of mind, sense of self, grace. It’s also about the creation of conscience, about what makes us human and why, a surprisingly little-told story in contemporary American cinema. You can learn a lot from our movies, like how to hold a gun and blow someone’s head off. It’s more unusual to watch a film in which the central struggle is how to be happy and sane. There’s a touch of the saint in Peggy, true, but what makes me love her is that she’s ridiculously, beautifully human.

Holy moly!  Where to begin!  Part of having a conscience is surely recognizing the limits of what we can and should say to small children.  Peggy does indeed go bonkers, and this is a sad and poignant part of the story.  And her animal-rights advocacy becomes a way of avoiding the incredibly hard choices she'd need to make to build a happy and fulfilling (not necessarily "normal") life.  I've seen this happen to people I care about, and it's hard to watch.  It's surprisingly hard to watch it happen on screen, particularly to characters who are so beautifully drawn.

Peggy is less ridiculously, beautifully human at the end of this movie than ridiculously, tragically alone and ridiculously, tragically crazy.  The truly horrible thing is that there are plenty of people who will prey on her loneliness and use her as a pawn in their larger design.  There's nothing cute about this movie.  It might be the most important you'll see this year, and I can assure you that it will be one of the more difficult to watch.