25 March 2012 | D_Burke
A Solid, Poignant Film Buried Like A Dead Dog In The Backyard
"Dogtown" is a film worth seeing which, unfortunately, also happens to be the kind of movie modern day Hollywood doesn't seem to want to make. It's a film that is in no rush to tell a story. In doing so, it allows itself to breathe and the audience to take the story in piece by piece, very much in the tradition of movies like "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) and "The Last Picture Show" (1971).
Because of the fact that the movie, despite some shocking parts, is less in-your-face than your average big budget multiplex staple, it was given a very limited theater release. It's too bad also, because the acting in the film is fantastic, and every character stays with you. It is also a story that should hit close to home for everyone who grew up in a small town, left for the big city, and returned even to visit.
The dilemma facing Phillip Van Horn (Trevor St. John) is that he tried to make it as an actor in Hollywood, did not quite make it, and returned to his hometown of Cuba, Missouri in hopes that he would get back on his feet. Although the most notable work he received in Hollywood was an extra in a Jeff Bridges film, most of the town sees him as a hero who "made it" on the outside. Other townies, particularly tow truck driver Ezra Good (Jon Favreau), whom Phillip knew from high school, are just plain jealous, although they would never admit it.
While Phillip has prospects that give him the possibility of getting out of living with his eccentric mother (Karen Black) and mentally handicapped sister (Natasha Gregson Wagner), one thing holds him back: Dorothy Sternan (Mary Stuart Masterson), a woman who was the most popular girl in his high school. The trouble is that she also happens to be dating Ezra.
While this love story is quite familiar, it's really the supporting actors who make this film great. Trevor St. John is a good actor, and he serves as a good emotional anchor around a town of what the untrained eye would consider crazy people.
Jon Favreau serves as a great antagonist, and, as you get to know his character better, he excels at reflecting the past disappointments of the former high school basketball star. His dried out glory days also serve as an understandable, but not condonable, root to his racism, which plays out later in the film.
Mary Stuart Masterson's character also seemingly had it easy in high school, only to have it very rough afterwords. Plus, when you see the scenes with her and her father (Ancel Cook), who sits in the shadows, it reveals a lot about how her high school glory was really an illusion in which even she believed.
There were two other performances that stayed with me. The first was Rory Cochrane, who played Custis Lasky, Ezra's co-worker and friend who has a bit more moral grounding than Ezra.
Harold Russell, who played World War II veteran and cigar store owner Blessed William, was perhaps the most memorable character in the film. Anyone who grew up in a small town knows an elderly veteran like Blessed William, someone who is recognized and respected by all in the community in part because they're always around. Having hooks for hands as a result of defending our country further enhances that unspoken gratitude.
Russell, who actually did lose both his hand in an explosion while fighting in World War II, shines in every scene. The movie cuts to him a few times sitting on a park bench smoking a cigar, and even those scenes are profound.
I thought the best scene with Russell was when he, as Blessed William, describes to Phillip how he earned the moniker "Blessed". Russell's natural storytelling skills pull you into the scene. Any other filmmaker would have cut to black and white flashback scenes. Director George Hickenlooper fortunately never did. It could be argued that Hickenlooper didn't have the budget for it, but I like to think differently.
While the film was draggy at times, and there was narration by Trevor St. John that didn't need to be there, "Dogtown" is still a great movie. It was Hickenlooper's third feature film after directing a few documentaries (most notably "Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" (1991)) and short films (most notably "Some Call It A Sling Blade" (1994), which star Billy Bob Thornton would later expand into the celebrated full-length film "Sling Blade" (1996)).
"Dogtown" did not get the theatrical release it deserved, partly because of it's low, low budget of less than $500,000, and partly because of typical Hollywood politics. It also hasn't gotten the attention it deserves because of it's title, thereby being confused with the documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys" (2001) and the docudrama "Lords of Dogtown" (2005), both movies about Southern California skateboarding culture in the 1970's.
Hopefully, its current availability on Netflix and streaming will get it a wider audience with an open mind. It should be seen for Harold Russell's performance, which turned out to be his very last film appearance. He had won two Academy Awards for his performance in "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), making him the only actor in movie history to win two Oscars for the same film role. His scenes in "Dogtown" showed how truly blessed he was.