For much of its first hour, Lawn Dogs staggers between success and failure. The film's first images, for example, of a "Lawn Dog" (an unfortunate title, invoking Tarantino a little too needily) on the move are quite striking. We see a man mounted on a chariot-like mower, riding it across lawns so plains-like he seems to almost make it to the sunset before turning around and cutting back toward the dawn. The lawn in question fronts a spanking-new manse in a gated suburban community, Camelot Gardens (sigh). The yardman is expected to cut his grass, collect his pay at the front door (without being allowed inside for a pee), then get the hell out of Camelot.
The scene is arresting because director John Duigan (Flirting, Sirens) has shot it wide-angle and from a distance, giving us a satisfyingly judgmental view of the stiflingly suburban life below. But the opening shots, with their obvious disapproval of the gated lifestyle, also threaten too-easy judgment of the suburbanites, and sure enough, facile condemnation is what we get next.
A pretty little girl, Devon (ten-year-old Mischa Barton) is sent by her parents out into a cookie sales competition. The object of the sale is supposedly to raise money for charity, but for her parents (owners of the lawn that just got mowed), it's to get their baby's picture in the paper -- an award accorded the top cookie seller in Camelot Gardens.
We know Devon sees through her parents' all-too-transparent desire to use their child (an accomplished little salesgirl in the family can't hurt Dad's plans to become "Mr. Board Member" in the Gardens), because she's squashed a fly, rather than a piece of fruit, into one of the cookies. So we're not terribly surprised when she ignores the admonition of her father (Christopher McDonald) not to "go outside the gates" and takes off strolling into the Kentucky countryside. (Glad to see they've got their soulless suburbanites in the Bluegrass State as well; I was afraid they were lagging behind.) Murmuring a story about the spirits in the woods that she makes up as she goes along, she follows a trail into a forest and winds up at Trent (Sam Rockwell, Box of Moonlight) the lawn man's humble estate -- that is, his completely rusted trailer.
So now she's going to meet this child of nature -- we've already seen Trent dive nekked off a one-lane bridge, stopping traffic with his parked pickup and inviting gawkers in both directions.
How much more natural can you get? And presumably he can save her from her plastic, artificially sweetened parents. All of this is much too simple, and the characters no deeper than the urine puddles various of them leave throughout the film. (I've never seen so much pissing in a movie -- Devon pees on top of her father's car.) The suburbanites get meaner and meaner, including a pair of college boys who motor around in a convertible, one sticking his hand up the skirts of horny housewives, including Devon's mom (Kathleen Quinlan), the other with his eye out for boys (including Trent, of course -- he's got the whole gated community twitchy with lust and class-loathing).
For much of the story's first half, the filmmakers try to make their hay by exploiting the protective sense of fantasy of Devon, who's been badly scarred as a result of chest-cracking heart surgery. She makes up magical stories about girls much like herself, and she endows household objects such as towels and combs with the power to rescue them. She charms her way into Trent's life, roaming frequently over to his hidden trailer (spouting dialogue that is far too literary), where they grill stolen chickens and have belching contests, which Trent generally wins.
The action -- culminating in the chicken-rustling episode -- gets nerve-wrackingly far-fetched in its attempts at whimsy. At this point, I officially gave up on Lawn Dogs and started wishing I were at a different movie.
Then something quite rare happened: The movie gathered itself and became downright compelling. This occurs when the larking couple, Trent and Devon, go back into Camelot. There, the nasty college boys' general harassment of Trent becomes much darker -- one turns his gardening equipment against him; the other leers into his eyes.
Both get more than they bargained for. The bully with Trent's trimmer is ground into the pavement, and his leering friend gets an attacking kiss -- and bite -- on the lips. This is the film's galvanizing moment. Until now, Trent has more or less suffered in silence, but here Rockwell shows us Trent's courage and cunning, and the rage that even now he manages to control, in one uncoiling of his body.
Rockwell gets most of the credit for the film's power. Looking like a hick Tom Cruise, Rockwell eventually gets to his character's hidden places of pain and inspiration, and makes him both satisfyingly complex and heroic. This is one charismatic actor.
After this scene, the movie becomes grounded, and genuinely dark. Not morbid, but powerful. A later scene, in which Trent and Devon explore each other's scars (at her insistence), is literally and figuratively touching. When Devon opens her shirt for Trent, and he looks away, the still-boyish girl says, "I don't want to show you my tits," then forces him to look at, and feel, the long, lumpy purple streak that surgery left in her chest. In comparison, Trent's old gunshot wound isn't much, which delights Devon.
Both characters, and especially Trent, have been living dangerously. He's an obvious if unwitting candidate for kidnapping and child-abuse charges, so it's no surprise when their intimacy turns against them, and puts them on a path to something like tragedy.
But because we now care about the characters, and are now pulling for them, the film's denouement has a powerful effect, even though the filmmakers do make several missteps.
If it didn't seem taken from today's headlines, I would say that the scene in which little Devon turns her father's own gun on him, perfectly ready to kill him, was over the top. In the same way, the sometimes too-much Lawn Dogs does finally evoke the mean streets of fin-de-siecle American suburbia.
Directed by John Duigan. With Mischa Barton, Sam Rockwell, Kathleen Quinlan and Christopher McDonald.
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