When it comes to films about dogs I find myself remarkably cynical. Maybe it’s the Old Yeller effect where you discover a film is about a dog and you expect it to die by the end of the movie. Look no further than Marley and Me for proof of this fact. You’d be hard pressed to find a person that didn’t have an uncomfortable feeling from the start of that film, that notion that this won’t end well. I went into Megan Leavey with that notion. However what that idea gave way to was a feeling of disappointment that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite plays into the viewers expectations. What she delivers uses our preconceptions (or at least mine) to create an emotionally manipulative, calculated film that never really feels like a story but a 120 minute long pet adoption advert.
Megan Leavey follows a down and out Megan (Kate Mara), a small town girl with no direction who decides to enlist to escape the monotony of her everyday life. When she is introduced to the sniffer dog program she bonds with a German Shepherd called Rex in a way she hasn’t since the loss of her best friend. When the two are deployed to Iraq they have to learn to work as a team to keep each other and the people around them alive.
That may be an oversimplification of the plot but over simplifying things is what this film does best so I felt it apt to provide half a synopsis for half a film. While most will enjoy Leavey’s simple story for what it is, a nice relationship between a woman and a dog, this is devoid of any real purpose. Much like Leavey herself the film is directionless as it glides from scene to scene never really saying anything. Character traits we are told to see in Megan we never really feel because the film spends too much time developing the character of Rex. While Rex makes for a compelling animal, he isn’t as watchable as Mara has proven to be in other, better movies.
In one of the opening scenes Megan is fired for not being a people person but over the course of the film this never really comes across. She may have a contentious relationship with her mother but every other character she interacts with she is personable, kind and most of all social. She even manages this before her first scene with Rex. The feeling of being on the outside looking in that Cowperthwaite wants us to feel never manifests thanks to a script too focused on mild moments of comedy instead of actual character depth.
Clearly Cowperthwaite has put a lot of time into the look of Megan’s world and time is spent building a landscape of emptiness through wide shots of desolate landscapes or empty marshland but the concept of loneliness is equally underwhelming. Finding your place in the world is hard, its the quiet moments that impact you the most, the ones that either make or break you as a person. It’s telling that Megan is rarely alone in this film, she never has to make decisions for herself, struggle without someone to guide her back to the road shes walking down or sit in a quiet room and just stew in her own feelings. She is told how to feel and when to feel it, which may make sense from a military standpoint but this is a human being, we don’t think something just because its needed of us in that moment.
If I’m trying to get at something it’s that nobody in Leavey really behaves like a human being and despite a concerted effort by Mara to make Megan interesting she cannot rise above a script that seeks to normalise her story, to dumb down a story full of exceptional traits. A film that should be about empowerment marginalises its central character and treats her like a jigsaw that needs to be filled in. What I’m trying to say is that Megan Leavey lacks humanity and that’s a crying shame.