It takes one hell of a demented sense of bravado and humour to open a film with the lead actor describing and discussing his penis in great detail, while being felated by a relatively unseen female character. In a five-minute, unbroken shot no less. But that is how Richard Shepherd, the writer/director of Dom Hemingway, starts his latest project. It is an alarming opening, but its bravery and ridiculousness allows the film the rare opportunity to immediately tell you if you should continue watching or head for the hills. And my twisted sense of humour suggested I should stay along for the ride.
Dom (Jude Law), an old-school safe cracker, is being released from prison after 12 years for his role in a heist gone awry. He stayed quiet, and did not rat on his fellow thieves. He is owed his share of the heist, but feels he should be given so much more.
The plot may sound overly simplified and contrived, but I simply cannot spoil what Shepherd has in store for the anti-hero to end all anti-heroes. What happens next, and through the remainder of the film’s 93-minute running time, is nothing short of the darkest material to hit the screen in many years. Shepherd has his very own brand of off-beat humour, and he showcases it to great effect within the film. He puts Dom through hell and back, staging each scene more effectively and ridiculously than the next. He even adds in title/chapter cards, helping define the proper feel and tone for the character. That may sound amateur, but it airs a certain amount of grandeur that allows the character’s ego to become even more inflated than it already is.
My issue with Dom Hemingway, besides it playing out a bit too similar to Shepherd’s own 2005 Pierce Brosnan/Greg Kinnear opus The Matador, is that the story lacks the unhinged confidence of the lead character. It takes its time but once the story opens up, it immediately goes in a handful of chaotic subplot directions. Yet it never stays on the same material for too long, trading it for the next almost as quickly as it got the first. New elements and ideas are added and removed on the fly, along with new underdeveloped characters. It is obvious that Shepherd is taking the high road and going for the slice of life approach to the film (by way of mental derangement), but it feels like a bit of a cheat – as if something crucial to the picture is missing from the final cut. Thankfully the film does eventually arrive at a satisfying conclusion, but at the expense of feeling rushed and uneven at nearly every turn.
Looking back on his filmography, I cannot remember the last time Law was as good as he is here. He has always been one of the most attractive men in modern cinema, but he is virtually unrecognizable as Dom – he is slightly overweight, balding, with obnoxious mutton chops that blend into a mustache and a permanently broken nose. Law gives the character just the right amount of unabashed swagger and ludicrous charisma for the audience to root for him, despite the despicable and off-putting things he says to other people.
Dom really is a rotten guy, but Law is having too much fun to really give into the darker side of Shepherd’s script. The character also has a surprising amount of heart and emotion that he tries to hide, giving Law the ability to excel and really bring a grand sense of depth to the unique character. It is a mutli-layered performance that could have gone so badly, but manages to be an absolutely stunning showcase for Law’s talents.
Despite a small amount of screen time for each of the supporting characters, they do a great job complimenting Law’s performance with great interplay and chemistry. Standing above all others is Richard E. Grant as Dom’s friend Dickie. He suffered his own tragedy (one the film is all too pleased at overusing for jokes), but he remains loyal to Dom from beginning to end. Grant plays him very straight and stone-faced, somehow never laughing at how ridiculous Law’s performance so quickly becomes. Grant uses this to his benefit and delivers some absolutely hysterical dialogue, nearly stealing the movie away from Law’s overbearing performance. Demian Bichir and Emilia Clark, two cable television stars, do very well in their small but significant roles, really helping to develop Dom as a character. I think Shepherd underuses both actors, but the moments they do have in the film are all great.
As I suggested at the beginning, your sense of humour will dictate how much you love or hate Dom Hemingway. Law really elevates his performance above the majority of his most recent roles, delivering a fully realized character unlike any other. There are issues with Shepherd’s script, but Law and the rest of the cast are having so much fun that they make it very hard to notice. It is just a real shame that Fox Searchlight is withholding the film until next April before releasing it. Hopefully it will appear at a local film festival and you can experience it much, much sooner.