Somebody ring Peta – onscreen doggie deaths are cropping up in a new spate of films
It’s cruel logic that man’s best friend happens to be a loyal creature that will die during its owner’s lifetime. In reality, dogs typically last 15 years, but in world cinema, it’s an hour if they’re lucky. Let’s call it “Chekhov’s Dog”: a mutt introduced near the start of a film must die in the third act, especially if it’s subtitled. Every dog has its day, and that day involves calculated tragedy to maximise emotional growth for a human protagonist.
As always, London Film Festival has been a way to gauge filmmaking trends from across the globe, and this year’s selection really upped the tally of doggie deaths. In Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine (2015), an army sergeant only takes his job seriously after a pet explosion. In Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto (2015), a hound is lethally wounded to continue a metaphor about mistreating immigrants. In Pablo Larraín’s The Club (2015), innocent canines are knocked off to teach guilty priests a lesson. In Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes (2015)… well, it’s hard to tell what happens, but it ain’t pretty. And so on. The mutt bites the dust in painful fashion, convenient to the plot, and everyone sees it coming.
But why do these sickos keep screwing the pooch? Most likely, it’s the kneejerk response to a cute puppy’s demise that overcomes language barriers and plays well to foreign audiences – at least, the ones who don’t mind a bit of emotional manipulation with their popcorn.
After all, the fest’s very British High-Rise (based off the titular novel by JG Ballard) takes the opposite tactic with Tom Hiddleston barbecuing a “hot dog” in the opening scene. In English-language films, the dog tends to die much earlier on to spark the protagonist, such as in John Wick (2014), an action vehicle that sees Keanu go full Keanu after losing his puppy. Or the fluffy corpse is a punchline. Wes Anderson kills them off to an imaginary laughter track in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and no one will forget the knitting fatality of Sightseers (2012).
That’s not to say dogs only stopped having their day in 2015. The “no animals were harmed…” disclaimer exists for a reason. The zeitgeist example, of course, is Marley and Me (2008), which epitomised the shamelessness and formulaic nature of the trope. The Skeleton Twins (2014) even riffs on the predictability of Marley when Bill Hader informs Kristen Wiig, “I know the dog dies. Everyone knows the dog dies.”
It’s like popping into the bathroom in a Quentin Tarantino joint, or yelling, “I’ll be back!” in a slasher film. Either break the rule, or acknowledge the cliché and add a new angle. Think of it as the arthouse equivalent of “fridging”, the comic book movie trope (popular with Chris Nolan) of women dying for the advancement of male character arcs.
Because enough is enough, auteurs – you’re supposed to save us from formulaic storylines. OK, maybe you’re a screenwriter who noticed your child became a more sympathetic, three-dimensional person ever since Rover was flattened by the neighbour’s car. Fine, incorporate it into your script, if you must. But next time, how about killing the cat for a change?