Red Dog is a real charmer of an Aussie movie. Directed by Kriv Stenders, the film is based on the true story of a Kelpie who won the hearts of Western Australia during the ’70s. With its myriad of heart and soul, the movie is a heart-warming, endearing, humorous and affecting portrayal of a mining town’s love for the titular canine. The film’s astute depiction of the relationship between man and dog, on top of the strong filmmaking and charming screenplay ensure that Red Dog can immediately join the canon of great dog flicks.
An adaptation of Louis de Bernières’ book of the same name, Red Dog tells the true story of a dog that befriended the mining community of Dampier. The film is predominantly spent in flashback, as it begins in 1979. A trucker named Tom (Ford) arrives in Dampier on a fateful night, and stops at the local pub where Red Dog lays dying from strychnine poisoning. Keeping vigil a room away, barman Jack (Taylor) and the other distraught locals begin to regale Tom with stories of their fondest memories of the dog. According to legend, Red Dog hitched a ride into Dampier one day and fast became a mascot for the melting pot of a population. The dog was everyone’s and no-one’s; he jumped into anyone’s lap or car. Until, that is, he finally chose his master: An American bus driver named John (Lucas), who drifted into the town to make a living.
Admittedly, Red Dog gets off to a rocky start. The first ten or 15 minutes are slow-going and rather uninvolving as the dizzyingly large ensemble begins to make appearances without sufficient back-story or build-up. The film soon finds its groove, though, and the second half in particular is thoroughly enthralling. Another problem is that this is an ensemble movie lacking a key human character through whom the story can gain traction — the script juggles protagonists without settling on anyone. Since Tom is the newcomer in town and he himself is being educated about Red Dog, he should be a strong entry point into the narrative for viewers, but instead the role is underdeveloped, devoid of personality and pretty much thankless; nothing but a device to allow the locals to tell their stories. The viewers are probably meant to project themselves onto the bland cipher that is Tom’s character, but that just seems like an excuse for laziness.
Pointing out such flaws, however, feels rather mean-spirited in what is otherwise a good-natured, easily lovable Australian gem that’ll make you laugh and cry. And the fact that this is essentially a non-fiction story only adds to the picture’s wonder. Some license was taken, but there was indeed a beloved canine known as Red Dog who touched the lives of several Western Australian residents in a huge way. To the men of that region it’s a profound story, and it’s also a very true blue Aussie tale due to its combination of beer drinking, outback red dust and sense of working-man mateship. There are a lot of cheeky laughs to be had throughout Red Dog as well, though the humor is uniquely Australian. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine international residents connecting or responding to this picture as deeply as Australians. With that said, though, anyone of any country will get a lump in their throat at various points due to the story’s inherent tragic elements. Fortunately, director Stenders did not overdo the grief, which ensures that the emotions feel genuine rather than shamelessly manipulative. Not to mention, the tragedy is balanced with an emotionally uplifting final scene. However, a couple of villains pop up in the form of upright caravan park caretakers, and they are far too broad and over-the-top.
Kriv Stenders’ direction and storytelling is clean and engaging, eschewing pretension, showiness and heavy-handedness for an appropriately simple approach (though there are a few instances of incredibly bad digital effects). Cinematographer Geoff Hall also gets a massive kudos for skillfully capturing the natural beauty of the Australian outback. The lovely soundtrack, meanwhile, is full of vintage rock songs from the era, supplemented by an atmospheric score courtesy of Cezary Skubiszewski. Furthermore, this is an unusual type of family film which contains drunkenness and pub brawling. Yet, the inclusion of such material adds to the flick’s authenticity, as the tale’s main players actually spent their time either working or drinking in real life. Thus, it’s refreshing to see a family-friendly film like this which is not completely vanilla when it comes to depicting reality.
The cast, for the most part, is superb. American Josh Lucas is warm and charismatic as Red Dog’s only master, while Rachael Taylor is suitably lovely as Nancy, who was a huge part of Red Dog’s life. Noah Taylor is also highly effective as Jack, and the late, great Bill Hunter even pops up for a delightful cameo. But the star of the film is Koko the dog, who fulfilled leading man responsibilities with utmost confidence. Sure, Koko is just a dog, but he’s one hell of a performer who’s both lovable and convincing, and who eloquently responds to the requirements of each scene. Koko is one of the reasons why Red Dog is such a success. After all, as Jack points out at one stage, the dog was so significant not because he did something remarkable, but because of who he was. Thanks to Koko, we can understand why Red Dog was so beloved.
In spite of its shortcomings, Red Dog works extremely well and is filled with several terrific scenes. It will move you, entertain you and make you laugh, and you cannot deny the endearing nature of the titular dog. This is a delightful winner of an Aussie movie, and only a true cynic would find it unenjoyable.