Before you go dismissing this as yet another Hollywood fluff about man's best friend, know this- 'Red Dog' is based on a true story of a stray Australian Kelpie who wound up in the remote mining town of Dampier, Australia and found its way so firmly into the hearts of the locals that a statue of him now greets all visitors to the town. Intrigued yet? You should, for this adaptation of Louis de Bernières' book based on the legend is a surprisingly engaging yarn that is probably one of the best canine movies you'll see this year.
Unfolding in flashback, the movie begins in the late 1970s when the long-haul trucker Tom (Luke Ford) lands up in a bar in Dampier and finds its occupants gathered in a back room trying to put down a copper-hued kelpie cross. The canine affectionately called 'Red Dog' has been- for reasons which go pretty much unexplained- poisoned by strychnine, and the town vet only confirms the worst fears of those gathered there that their beloved companion is dying.
The quizzical Tom inquires about Red Dog from the bartender Jack (Noah Taylor), who will be the first among the rest of the locals to recount their fond memories with him. It is a befitting start, for Jack and his wife Maureen (Loene Carmen) were responsible for bringing Red Dog to the newly established mining town after meeting him on the highway. At first largely ignored among the rowdy mining community, Red Dog finds himself the centre of attraction when a homesick Italian worker Vanno (Arthur Angel) takes to talking to him about his hometown that no one else would bother listening to.
Just like that, screenwriter Dan Taplitz effortlessly hands over the narrating baton to another of the townsfolk gathered in the bar- and Vanno's account tells of Red Dog as everyone's dog but no one's in particular, not the burly Peeto with a secret love for knitting nor the reticent Jocko (Rohan Nicol) nursing a tragic secret. Both characters however are among those personally touched by Red Dog's presence which Taplitz brings to the forefront of the film, and these vignettes are infused with such gentle humour and warmth that you can't quite help but be charmed by them.
The man Red Dog finally chooses as his master is the American bus driver John (Josh Lucas), a drifter who never stays more than two years in one place. John steps out to save the dog from humiliation, and just like that, a permanent bond is forged between the two. So strong is their connection that John senses jealousy on Red Dog's part when he asks the company secretary Nancy (Rachael Taylor) out on a date- the dog placed in Peeto's care finding its own way to the open air movie theatre screening Steven Spielberg's 'Jaws'.
Yet it is to Brisbane born filmmaker Kriv Stevens' credit that one feels equally for the relationship between John and Red Dog as much as that between John and Nancy, instead of manipulating his audience's emotions to favour one over the other. Stevens blends the lives of these characters beautifully, which pays off enormously when the film takes a sombre turn after John's abrupt disappearance following his wedding proposal to Nancy. It's no secret tragedy has befallen- and this becomes a turning point for Red Dog and his legend as the loyal friend waits patiently at John's house for three weeks for his return before setting off on a journey around Western Australia in search of his master.
To say that this bittersweet second half is poignant is an understatement, and we advise you to be ready when you feel a lump in your throat or for that matter tears in your eyes. Stevens doesn't overdo the grief, and the restraint that he displays in handling the proceedings goes a long way in ensuring that the sentiments portrayed in the film always remain genuine. Melodrama is also not his intent, and the sober tone changes to a more decidedly humorously offbeat one when Red Dog faces off with his infamous nemesis, a snarling kitty simply called Red Cat.
The ease with which the film switches between comedy and poignancy is in part due to the spontaneous quality of the storytelling, which eschews any pretension, showiness or heavy-handiness for a straight-up approach. The outback against which Red Dog's story unfolds never feels less than authentic, thanks in no small measure to Geoffrey Hall's wonderfully evocative cinematography which captures the rugged beauty of the Pilbara and its mining industry. The chemistry between the mostly male actors is also excellent, and Lucas and Taylor make for an extremely likable couple.
But the star of the film is first-time leading dog Koko (owned by producer Nelson Woss) who proves to be truly a revelation, responding to the emotional beats of each scene with great eloquence. It isn't often we praise the acting of an animal, but Koko is a large part of the reason why the film works marvellously. The charm of Red Dog's story however lies not with what he did, but rather who he was- as one of the characters in the film points out early on- through his actions to each member of the Dampier community. And told with wit, humour and warmth, it is a crowd-pleaser for all ages.
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