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DOM HEMINGWAY Blu-Ray Review – The Anti-Hero Blahs

A semi-comic character study of a foul-mouthed, ill-tempered safe cracker (Jude Law), Dom Hemingway begins with its titular thief in a medium-length shot delivering a bawdy soliloquy about his penis directly into camera.  It’s a weird, arresting way to begin a movie – until the camera pulls back further to reveal that a fellow prison inmate was indeed fellating Hemingway the entire time.  It’s par for the course in the entire film, which recycles the most puerile tropes of gangster cinema in a failed attempt to convince the audience that its brand of anti-hero posturing is something original and exciting.

Dom Hemingway takes a mostly indulgent view of its protagonist, a reckless loudmouth who finishes up a 12-year stint in jail by immediately demanding remuneration from the powerful crime boss Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bechir), who Hemingway refused to rat out in exchange for a lighter sentence.  (That he merely insults the capo in his holiday villa makes it one of his lighter moments.)  The movie rewards Hemingway for his intransigence, and keeps doing so until a mid-film twist puts him in a position of simultaneous freedom and vulnerability.  But even then, it’s not so much about watching Hemingway as he copes with his post-incarceration life, but about affirming a kind of cosmic superiority – his clashes with criminal authority rarely result in material gain, just the knowledge that he is a superior breed of badass.  It’s only intermittently funny when it isn’t downright troubling.

Hemingway is not a subtle man, and Hemingway is not a subtle film.  Writer-director Richard Shepard – whose most recent feature work was directing crime capers The Matador and The Hunting Party – creates Law’s character whole cloth from a 1970s fever dream.  His mutton chops and polyester wardrobe set him apart from the modern world so much as to make him a time traveler, a caveman from an almost pre-technological era: when forced to demonstrate his safe cracking abilities for a prospective employer in a high-stakes bet, Hemingway literally rips the metal box out of the wall.  Even his more even-keeled sidekick, Dickie (Withnail and I‘s Richard E. Grant), who appears as if he raided Robert Evans’ wardrobe, is an example of the movie’s anachronistic quoting of ’70s decadence.

But while Dom Hemingway packs plenty of flavor, it’s quite lacking in nutrition.  Major coincidences abound.  Shepard picks up, discards, and circles back to subplots with little elegance, including an especially doofy one that involves a blessing of good fortune from one of Fontaine’s female associates (Kerry Condon).   The film allows Hemingway at least a minor note of pathos in his ruined relationship with his daughter (Emilia Clarke) and his mourning of an ex-wife who died while he was in prison.  Yet this feels perfunctory and makes up only a sliver of the screentime that isn’t given over to Hemingway bullying, offending, exploiting, and threatening everyone in sight.  The film’s saving grace is the daring of its cast, particularly Law’s completely uninhibited turn that makes his previous matinee-idol persona more of a distant memory.  Alas, it takes more than bluster and blarney to pull off a truly meaningful and affecting anti-hero story, but Dom Hemingway nonetheless insists that you take its word for it.

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The Author

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is a film critic and correspondent for Screen Invasion, as well as the founder of Ambler Amblog (http://ambleramblog.blogspot.com/). His parents named him after a Welsh spy novelist they found in a reference book. Someday he will get around to watching all the VHS tapes he bought at Goodwill.