Published Jun 08, 2017When we last encountered director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's work, she was examining the darker side of human-animal relationships in the documentary Blackfish. That dynamic remains very much on her mind in her follow-up film, the dreadfully titled Megan Leavey. Swapping SeaWorld for the arid landscape of war-torn Iraq, the director focuses on the true story of a human handler in an American unit of IED-detection dogs during the early 2000s.
Kate Mara portrays the titular Megan, a depressed, withdrawn young woman sleeping her twenties away, clashing with her dysfunctional family (Edie Falco gets a few firecracker scenes as Megan's mercenary mother) and getting fired from a daycare job because, as her boss states, "You don't really connect with people very well." Isn't it great when screenwriters forgo the show-don't-tell rule and instead spoon-feed characterization right into the mouths of moviegoers? So considerate.
The whole script could've used a thorough vetting to eliminate clichéd dialogue, repetitive scenes and weak transitions. For instance, we see no logical sequence taking Megan from aimless deadbeat to boarding the bus to training camp, apart from the huh glance she directs toward two Marines crossing her path in town. The film tries to obscure these plot spasms by jumping right into montages of Megan's training and monologues from apoplectic drill sergeants about serving one's country, etc., but it's difficult to root for a character whose motivations haven't been properly established.
Leavey does eventually find its feet when Megan is assigned to the K-9 unit and meets the dog who will be at her side on the front lines. Rex is an antisocial, rebellious misfit like herself, so it's natural that the two form a strong bond before shipping out (a bond established in yet another montage).
The rippling American flag that occupies three-quarters of Leavey's poster suggests this might be yet another nationalistic war-wank like American Sniper or, Dog forbid, Top Gun. However, Cowperthwaite truly aims for political neutrality here — almost excessively so. The focus remains entirely on Megan and Rex's relationship, and eschews any comment on the War in Iraq or even sexism in the military — it really is just a movie about a dog and the Marine who loves him.
In Megan and Rex's scenes together, there's a refreshing lack of sentimentality or cutesy canine-reaction shots: authentic, disorienting tension infuses the well-paced sequences of the pair gingerly searching for explosives, as well as unflagging respect for the hardworking animals. With a colour scale limited to khaki shades of camo and desert, Leavey doesn't feed the eye in any way, but it should get props for conveying the hell of war without resorting to showy Bruckheimer-esque shootouts.
The supporting cast lacks star power but is full of solid performances: rapper Common depicts Sergeant Gunny (yes, really) of the K-9 unit with commanding warmth, and Harry Potter's Tom Felton successfully distances himself from campy Draco with a subtle turn as veteran dog handler Andrew Dean.
"Everything you're feeling travels down the leash," Dean tells Megan as she is struggling with Rex. This would also be a fitting instructive to the deadpan Kate Mara, who rarely directs enough personality "down the leash" to make a lasting impression on audiences. Her scenes with fellow dog handler and tepid love interest Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez) especially suffer because of this, though it's somewhat forgivable in the latter case; it serves to prioritize the real love story between Megan and Rex.
The final half of the film focuses on Megan's struggles with military bureaucracy that forbids she take Rex home with her after leaving the Marines, and from here, we reach standard TV-movie fodder — the little guy up against The Man, the patriotic Senator who assists the Noble Cause. Events unfurl satisfyingly and predictably, as they usually do in both dog movies and war movies.
Animal lovers will not be disappointed by Megan Leavey, but watching a few of YouTube's endless supply of 'Returning Soldier Reunites with Furry Best Friend' videos will deliver a similar emotional payoff to those who give the film a miss.