Some films, particularly ones with an animal component, have a very easy job of getting their audience to connect to the story. Most of the time this connection seems effortless, as though the presence of the dog or horse or dolphin is such an automatic trigger to human emotion that the film itself doesn’t need to do any extra work to ensure that the audience feels exactly what they’re expected to feel at any given moment. With Megan Leavey, sure, there is a dog in a war scenario, but the dog in question is known to be a violent dog, one who has broken the hand of a formal trainer, and the title character isn’t exactly a ray of sunshine either. In order for the audience to care about this team, Megan Leavey has to work hard to draw the audience in, and the combination of Kate Mara’s quiet and strong acting, the tension-building of her overseas combat, and the surprising delicacy of the portrayal of a former soldier’s PTSD combine to create a narrative that tugs at the heart-strings. The love of a woman and her dog is just an added bonus to squeeze out a few more tears.
After losing a job and realizing that her life is going nowhere, Megan Leavey (Mara) decides to escape her town (and some bad memories) and join the Marines. Once there she struggles through basic training and after receiving her first assignment, gets into trouble and is assigned to clean the cages of the K-9 bomb detection dogs. When she realizes she enjoys working with the dogs, she approaches the head of the unit, Gunnery Sergeant Martin (Common) and asks to be put into the program. After several months she is assigned Rex, an aggressive German Shepherd who has already broken a trainer’s hand, and their time to bond is shortened when they is quickly deployed to Afghanistan, where being both a dog handler and a woman paints a target on their backs. As Rex and Leavey begin to spend more time together, their bond grows, and they connect from their wartime experience and when she is sent home, Leavey fights to take Rex out of the field permanently.
Mara has always been a steady actress, kind of like Mark Strong – her performances are always good, if not great, but she is usually put into side roles or smaller films that don’t get as much attention. This isn’t including the Fantastic Four reboot, but most people were so upset by it that I can imagine her performance wouldn’t have been taken seriously if it was good or bad. In this film, portraying a real person, I can imagine the pressure was on to make it a realistic performance. It was a very convincing one – Mara certainly seemed to have no real connection with anyone until she transferred to the K9 unit, but not in a way that made her seem disconnected from the story. On the contrary, her lack of real connection with any person (or almost a fake connection with them) further emphasizes how much Rex does for her in her time as a Marine, and what she is willing to do for him later one and how important it is. Mara is not the only one who gives a great show – Bradley Whitford, who plays her father, has no useless lines, every word out of his mouth is a goldmine in terms of giving his character life, but without needing to resort to long monologues. Even his first line – “Oh God you’re okay” when he greets Mara as she returns from active duty – only has four words, and yet the passion and feeling behind them say more about his character than a monologue ever could. Tom Felton also delivers a nice performance as Andrew Dean, a more experienced canine handler who helps Mara find her way with Rex in the early stages of training. Not only is he the first indication of the less-than-pleasant experiences Leavey (and we as an audience) will face in Afghanistan, but he begins to provide insight into the lives of the handlers and the dogs that they work with, love, but do not own. These performances give life to things we do not see, like the idea of dogs developing PTSD the same as humans do, and what might happen if a dog war veteran is around people and suffering in that way.
The camera work of Megan Leavey also goes a long way to helping the audience really feel the story the actors are telling us. Every shot in Afghanistan is shaky, roaming around, almost as if the camera isn’t sure where to look or what might be important. This is a feeling that the audience must be feeling to really connect with what Leavey and Rex are feeling on the battlefield, sniffing out bombs that may or may not be there, finding new mixes of materials that dogs may not have been trained to sniff, and protecting the lives of their fellow soldiers. The cinematography emphasizes the feeling that everything and nothing all at once can be a danger to our characters, and then when nothing happens, the coil of anticipation curls more in our stomachs. Then, even when the fighting does inevitably break out, that coil doesn’t go away because the camera is still shaking and the audience feels as though there must be more danger that they just aren’t seeing. This attention to detail also comes into play later, when Leavey has returned home and must work through the stress of being a soldier returned from battle. Mara has several great moments of this portrayal, but the best scene is when she is crying outside of a bar, moving in regular motion, but everything else in the shot – cars, people, light – is going much quicker, almost emphasizing how stuck in place Leavey is because of her PTSD, how life is going on around her and she no longer really has a place in it. The only thing that gets her back on track is Rex, and this shot alone proves how important it is for her to have him by her side.
There are some connections that don’t work quite as well. Leavey begins a relationship with fellow handler Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez), but it seems too quick and almost unnecessary – the two had a friendly relationship as the two dog handlers onsite at their station in Afghanistan, and they certainly become close enough for Leavey to open up to, but the fact that romance blossoms from that doesn’t quite seem real as it occurs. Then the relationship ends just as quickly, with so little time devoted to it that it almost doesn’t seem to matter in the context of the story. Leavey’s backstory also doesn’t quite seem to connect with the audience in the way that it was meant to do, shoved almost halfway into the film and then never really discussed again after that. She reveals that her aimless nature was due to the death of her best friend who died of a drug overdose, but after she reveals this (to Morales, in another moment that makes you think they could really be platonic best buddies and nothing more), it is never discussed again and the issues she works through later overwhelm it so much that the audience is likely to forget it was ever an problem to begin with. There are just a few things that don’t translate well into the story, and those moments jar the audience, but not enough to completely ruin the experience.
At the end of the day, this is the story of of a soldier and the dog she comes to think of as her own, and how she makes that a reality. That will resonate with anyone and everyone, and who doesn’t love the story of the love we can have for our pets?
4 / 5
Now I know that part of the story is how dangerous a German Shepherd can be and Rex started as a dog who broke a dude’s hand, but I still really want my own Shepherd. Not going to lie.