Sean Weitner saw “Dom Hemingway” at the Wisconsin Film Festival, and it’s already back in town for an engagement at Sundance Cinemas. Here’s his review:
Are we far enough past the mid-’90s scourge of having every grim, violent, often dull moviemaker being hailed as “the next Tarantino” for me to pay that compliment to Richard Shepard? The label is an oversell, but Shepard picks up the best part of Tarantino-ism: Polishing and electrifying his personal cinema history to make one from the heart that pinballs through a playfield of references.
Shepard’s film “The Matador” found a sidearm way to contemplate Pierce Brosnan as Bond in his post-Bond years. “Dom Hemingway” takes on a different British screen icon: crime movie knockabouts, here gone to seed in a remarkable display of vanity/anti-vanity from Jude Law as Dom.
Dom’s been in prison for 12 years for not snitching; if we do our release-date maths, I think that means he used to be a character in a movie by Guy Ritchie, the UK director-cum-Madonna-divorcee that hit it big with “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” at the turn of the century. In their native country, those are known as “lad” movies, the way Maxim is a “lad” magazine — in other words, targeted at overgrown boys. With “Dom Hemingway,” we’re adding a generation to that. Paul Westerberg sometimes records as Grampaboy; Dom Hemingway is Granddad Lad.
Law sinks his chompers into the role, an overstuffed show of biceps, bare chests and muttonchops — his first line, asking contemplative questions about the magnificence of other parts of his anatomy, indicates this is a man grandiloquent in his self-regard and, conversely, just unempathetic enough to constantly deal damage to his closest kin.
An early sequence finds Dom and his oldest mate Dickie (Richard E. Grant) arriving at the estate of he-on-whom-Dom-did-not-snitch, Mr. Fontaine, as they race a too-nice car down winding roads to a too-palatial French estate, where he lays eyes on Fontaine’s too-curvaceous consort Paolina (Madalina Ghenea), who is of course the one bird whose feathers he shouldn’t ruffle. And then Fontaine arrives (Demian Bichir of “The Heat”), standing on a hilltop, calling down to the hoods with a rifle on his hip that Dom’s opening monologue would doubtless describe as “exquisite.”
Their conversation is all alligator smiles. Fontaine, a businessman who knows he needs to repay his debt, also knows that someone who would incur this debt is capable of inflicting all manner of chaos; Bechir proclaims with gusto but his eyes only transmit flintiness. Dom, who has indeed been on tilt since his release and is wickedly hung over, has whittled his impulse control down to a hair trigger but is under no illusions that his payment and, for that matter, continued existence is at Fontaine’s pleasure; Law is all sour swagger, suggesting a vicious cycle of hair-of-the-dog with his louche posture but visibly scared enough to be biting back his truest thoughts. Fontaine gregariously fires some celebratory rounds into the sky … but of course what goes up must come down. It’s a scene that showcases Shepard’s dexterity with tone, framing and performance, building a better mousetrap that you can’t wait to watch snap.
Of course it does snap, in the following scene, where Dom can’t help but give Fontaine a piece of his mind, in a sterile white room dominated with enormous portraits of apes. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the movie is that the story hairpins in at least three genuinely unexpected directions, each of which delivers delicious new cast members and story pleasures. This thing hums, and it’s a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser.
The Ritchie (and Tarantino) comparison falters near the end, as Dom moves through conventional reformed-nogoodnik paces and the proper comparison becomes “Love Actually” director Richard Curtis (a switcheroo Shepard might have gotten away with if not for the treacly music). The movie is ultimately a bit too satisfied with Dom, as of course is Dom himself, and while the ending doesn’t feel unearned, it doesn’t feel quite true either.
But if the prospect of great actors doing British gangsters with baroque dialogue makes your thirsty, “Dom Hemingway” is an eminently satisfying quaff.