Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Mike White’s Year of the Dog is about a woman who goes temporarily insane. The way she ends up there is at once comedic, bizarre and heartbreaking. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film quite like this one and it’s not often that I get to say that. I also have to admit that after the first fifteen minutes or so, I simply did not think that I’d be calling it one of the years best films either.
But it is, and I am.
Molly Shannon is Peggy, a lonely secretary whose only companion is a cute little beagle named “Pencil”, because as Peggy says, “When I got him he was so thin and brown”. We see Peggy leave Pencil alone when she goes to work and the audience goes “awww”. We see Peggy cuddle up to Pencil at night and the audience goes “awww”. At this point I turned to my friend and said, “I hope you don’t do that during the entire film”. Soon after though something tragic happens and it’s clear that there won’t be many more “awwws” from the audience.
Suffice it to say that Peggy begins to think more seriously about both animals and life itself. She’s invited to dinner by her next door neighbor Al (John C. Reilly) who afterwards shows her his collections of knives and deer heads. Not the guy for her, she determines. One day she gets a call from Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) at the animal clinic asking her to adopt a dog, and soon enough she’s stuck with an unstable German Shepard named “Valentine” while also falling for Newt. Peggy soon discovers what we knew from the start, that Newt isn’t meant for her and maybe neither is Valentine.
There are many surprises in Year of the Dog and I won’t reveal them because that is part of the pleasure of the film as we discover along with Peggy who she really is and what she really cares about. As I mentioned earlier, Peggy does indeed go temporary insane. Well, maybe insane isn’t the right word here, maybe “obsessive” fits better. People can obsess about a lot of things, Peggy chooses animals and their well-being. If you have ever watched one of those animal rescue shows and wondered how someone could end up with forty cats in their apartment, this film might answer that question for you. If you ever thought that people who throw paint on those wearing furs are crazy, you might have a different opinion after watching this film.
Writer/Director Mike White (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl) doesn’t seem to be so much interested in animal lovers as he is about obsession and what motivates us to care so much about something. There are people who go to ballgames with their entire bodies painted in a certain team’s colors. Are they nuts? Who is really to say? In Year of the Dog, Peggy does some crazy things but only because she’s so overwhelmed by what she’s feeling that she really doesn’t know how to handle it. Molly Shannon comes out of nowhere to give a performance of subtle beauty. Peggy goes through so many complex changes yet Shannon allows us into her head and heart with a look here or a glance there. It’s truly something to behold. The other performances in the film are equally solid. Peter Sarsgaard, who is so often cast as the heavy, brings a gentle and easy affability to Newt, the animal trainer. Josh Pais is Peggy’s solemn, and serious yet totally insecure boss who can’t understand what is happening to his once sane and reliable secretary. Laura Dern, and Thomas McCarthy are Peggy’s square and overly protective sister in law and brother.
While I might have been concerned at the start of Year of the Dog, the exact opposite can be said for its ending, which is about as perfect as an ending can be. Through all of Peggy’s crazed, unpredictable behavior, after all of the dogs have come and gone, we are left with the realization that Mike White has possibly made one of the most poetic metaphors for love the screen has ever seen. He understands that a few “awwws” are necessary along with a whole lot of “ouch, that hurts”.