Film review: Red Dog

 A more succinct version of this review originally appeared on upstart, and is available here.

Much is made of whether or not Australian films say something about the national ethos. Red Dog does, even if it is mainly about the resilient strength and community appeal of a good dog, while making no claims to being a ‘big’ story. This is no sweeping epic like Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, a movie that turned the landscape into a stage for larger-than-life characters. The characters of Red Dog know this isn’t a story about them: it’s about the dog. It’s a love affair between two wanderers, and the story of the one who’s left behind.

Red Dog (played by Koko) is a wanderer of the Pilbara who shows up unexpectedly in the mining town of Dampier in the early 1970s. Through the combination of independence and friendliness that defines Red, he becomes the best friend and confidant of half the town – mainly men, working in physical jobs, without women or affection in their lives.

Red has no master, until John (Josh Lucas) rides into town on his motorbike. One of the best early scenes is on the highway out of Dampier, as John, on his way into town, passes Red trotting along the road in the other direction on a mission of his own. A look is exchanged between them, and the scene perfectly captures the meeting of two wanderers and the recognition of something of themselves in each other. John resists the pull of friendship with the dog for a while, but eventually he gives in, and thus these two travellers become inseparable best mates and finally have a reason to stay put.

The film, based on a true story, is told through the memories of those who knew both Red Dog and John, precipitated by the arrival in Dampier of a stranger (Luke Ford). It’s 1979 and Red, now greying around the muzzle, lies ill in a back room of the Mermaid Hotel. As the news spreads that the beloved Red Dog is sick, the pub fills and it becomes an impromptu wake as people take it in turns to tell the newcomer about what the dog means to them.

The first half of the movie, as Red Dog’s arrival in town is established and his friendship with John grows, seems to flash by. There’s no need for clunky voice-over narration; the narrators are instead the publican (Noah Taylor) and others in the pub. Their words set the scene to explain what’s going on early in the movie as Red hops in and out of trucks and cars across the Pilbara, hitchhiking. This part of the film is really funny, too – from the obsession of Vanno (Arthur Angel) with his hometown in Italy to the dog’s killer flatulence, points of humour are established early and they carry on throughout the movie.

The retrospective mode of narration leaves little time to do more than scratch the surface of the characters, but before long this ceases to matter. At the heart of the film is Red Dog, and not only does his character develop in depth but he also becomes the vehicle by which the other characters are revealed. The cast is superb, with a great selection of well-known Aussie actors including a brief cameo from the late Bill Hunter.

Red Dog is in part a story of the romance between John and Nancy (Rachael Taylor), but it’s the love story between Red and John that really tugs at the heartstrings. Red is at the centre of the community and everyone loves him, but he has his softer side and no-one except John really understands him. With John’s departure from the film, leading to Red Dog’s fame as he searched the Pilbara and beyond for his master, there are no easy answers. Red does not conveniently become Nancy’s dog (as much as I wanted him to); he is, once again, the community’s – and yet nobody’s, too.

At the very end, in a scene harking back to a similar one early in the movie, the community is brought together by Red – talking about him, sharing stories about his life. Yet he walks away from them, unnoticed, in search of something else. He is the community’s glue but he is also his own dog, and no-one else ever really understands him.

The movie gives a few indications early on that it might be a bit corny, but director Kriv Stenders successfully avoids over-sentimentality. The Pilbara red dust doesn’t turn the characters into caricatures, and the story, even the pathos, fits beautifully into the landscape. The soundtrack is brilliant – Eagle Rock and Way Out West overlay the red dirt, ’70s vehicles, ore trains and towering piles of salt, and it works. It’s uplifting, the sense of men seeking freedom from their pasts, of the girl from Perth seeking adventure in the north, of the dog making his home in this isolated mining community. Certainly the Pilbara is idealised, but it’s forgivable because Red Dog’s story is told by a group of people in a bar who love him, and who are nostalgic about his younger days.

The fact that the landscape is not overdone is a key part of the film’s success. Cinematographer Geoffrey Hall makes brilliant use of the unique Western Australian light – the shadows, the intensity of the sun, and the influence of the ocean on the tone of the evening light. But he does not dramatise the land: it is big and beautiful, especially on a cinema screen, but it is not presented as a stage.

The landscape that becomes important in Red Dog is not a majestic scene of sweeping roads or coastlines or red desert, but rather it’s a rocky dirt track cresting the small hill by John’s place: a spot that becomes the emotional location of the film as Red Dog watches the track, waiting stoically for his master to come home. Just as in reality the places that come to mean something to us are rarely majestic or even beautiful, so too in the film the important place is one that is simple, familiar and symbolic.

Red Dog is a strong, powerful story with a bunch of great characters. I’ve heard it described as a feel-good film, but it’s better than that. It made me laugh and cry, and made me want to go back to the Pilbara, even though it has changed so much. I hope to see the movie again before it leaves the big screen.

A few days after I saw Red Dog, I can’t get it out of my head.