Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway, starring Jude Law as an aging felon and Richard E. Grant (yes) as his best friend, is a bizarre genre hybrid of gangster entertainment and family tearjerker. At first we seem to be solidly in lads’-night-out funland: splashy neon colors, head-butting and gut-punching, terrific music, wenching and boozing and unauthorized smoking. There are rivers of obscenity and wordy, actory speeches. (All of these are given to Law’s titular Dom, which is a shame, since if anyone can speechify it’s Richard E. Grant. The man is to monologues what piranhas are to luckless Amazonian fishermen.) The movie opens with an extended ode to Dom’s, let’s say, virility, and you think you know the kind of movie it’s going to be.
But even in that opening scene, Law’s face is so distorted and his voice so desperate that he seems genuinely deranged. The movie whipsaws the audience’s sympathies: Dom is our POV character, but he’s violently unstable and his idea of fun rapidly stops being yours.
The storyline is pretty simple. Dom went to prison for twelve years because he wouldn’t rat out a major gangster. “A rat is a rat, and a teat is a tit,” he declares, in one of his many nonsensical attempts at tough talk. Upon getting out he first pulverizes his late wife’s second husband, then heads to the pub to find Dickie (Grant) and express incredulity about smoking bans. Having spent a weekend with the traditional post-prison recreation of hookers and blow, he heads to the French countryside to collect the payoff for his silence. There’s a mafioso’s mansion with aggressively arch decoration, a few explosions of lust and temper, a liquor-fueled car ride which ends in a crash, and then Dom’s payment gets stolen from under his nose by the lush Paolina (Madalina Ghenea), the mafioso’s moll.
Paolina disappears—and the movie suddenly becomes the story of Dom’s attempts to win back the affection of his grown daughter (Emilia Clarke). He’s still having his punch-drunk safecracker adventures, but in his down time he’s lurking around the club where his daughter sings, or breaking down in sobs on his wife’s grave. It’s all played completely straight. Even the music switches from full-moon rocking to thoughtful, wistful strumming.
Throughout all this, Law is convincingly and unsettlingly demented; Grant is a hilariously helpless onlooker; Jumayn Hunter is very fun as a second-generation hood with a grudge against Dom; and the women are thinly written and forgettable. The movie’s design is always flashy and cool.
And I appreciated the way the movie’s genre switch plays with the conventions of how an audience “reads” the violence onscreen. At first you feel like you’re supposed to treat all these beatings and bashings as cartoon violence. Nobody cries for Wile E. Coyote, unless you’re Grant Morrison. But from the very beginning there’s something psychotic about Dom’s uncontrollable rage. It’s not enjoyable, even when the tone of the movie makes it seem like it’s supposed to be. And as the movie’s genre shifts, the film begins to validate the audience’s discomfort with his violence. He starts to feel trapped rather than triumphant.
So what is this thing? Is it a genre flick with the daddy issues which appear to have become obligatory? (See also Hulk, Iron Man and especially Iron Man 2, Thor, the Star Trek reboot, etc.) Or is it a redemption story, the basically serious tale of a tough man learning to be tender?
There are signs that it’s supposed to be this second thing. The dialogue about the daughter is never arch and rarely funny (although Dom’s overflowing speech about how he’ll walk with her “silently. In silence. Like a mime. Or like an old woman who lives alone in an attic” got the biggest laugh of the film). There are hints in the background: When Dom finally goes to talk to her, graffiti on the wall shows a pink heart with the word FOUND inside, and as he walks pensively down a major street, you can see that the road under his feet bears the traffic direction, GIVE WAY.
I figured that at some point Dom Hemingway—like Dom Hemingway—would have to choose what it wants to be. Fun criminal flicks have one kind of ending, in which the criminals get away with it and we laugh and it’s great. Poignant family dramas have either a happy ending of reconciliation, or a tragic ending of estrangement.
I hope it’s not too spoilery to say that Dom Hemingway tries to have it both ways. Its ending attempts to combine the glee of the caper film with the hope of the family film—a last, bizarre twist for a genuinely odd movie.