It’s hard to know where to begin with a movie which itself opens on a scene of a shirtless Jude Law spouting a grunty soliloquy about the magnificence of his johnson while being blown just off screen by a fellow prison inmate. So much so that I can’t even think of how to follow up that damn sentence, really. Needless to say, Dom Hemingway is a unique affair, brazen and stylistically charged, and willing to throw a few curveballs at us.
Law stars as the titular Dom Hemingway, a safecracker fresh from the clink after a 12 year stint for refusing to roll over on his boss. After an accident leaves Dom penniless and out of work, he returns to London and his estranged daughter, most of his former bravado and bluster violently shattered as he’s finally confronted with reality. Dom’s daughter curses the ground he walks on, and most of his former criminal contacts are either dead or jailed, leaving a new generation of criminals far removed from Dom’s old-school ways as the only ones he can turn to for work.
Law’s performance is definitely the film’s trump card. He plays Dom with enough manic, screaming intensity that one is left constantly expecting him to start vomiting pea soup and speaking in Latin. Sporting muttonchops that make him look like a long-lost brother of Captain John Price in a three-piece suit and beetle boots, Law spends most of the first act screaming at people like he’s passing a stone, usually just before or after inflicting massive bodily harm on them. Usually though, he manages to stay just shy of going over the top, though there is one unfortunate scene in a graveyard where that trend is broken.
For the first act or so, the film matches Dom’s manic wildness, full of brightly colored scenes, quick cuts and loud rock music blaring though the soundtrack. Along with the anachronistic chapter title cards, it almost feels like some mid-60s New Wave film that arrived to the party a half century too late. It’s all style and flash, full of rampant hedonism and excess. One almost expects to see Alex DeLarge saunter through the frame to wink knowingly at the camera and cheerily violate someone.
But then around the start of the second act, the film undergoes a massive tonal shift, in some ways feeling like it realized what century it was in and traded the excessive, stylist trappings of early New Wave indie cinema for the somber, quiet meanderings of contemporary indie cinema. Dom trades his three-piece for a worn leather jacket and polo shirt, and the drug binges and cartoonish characters give way to Dom morosely trying to reconcile with his daughter while soft guitar chords are plucked in the background.
It’s an interesting tonal shift, and one which was probably kept a closely guarded secret given how Dom’s antics and explosive character are the only fiddle the advertising campaign seemed to be playing. Of course, Dom’s first act wildness returns when he tries to get in with a former rival’s son, but, for the most part, the second half of the film seems glaringly different from the first in terms of tone, making the whole thing feel like a weird hybrid of The Wrestler and Bronson. Dom’s bluster and swagger are almost meaningless to his daughter, here played by Emilia Clarke, and his code of ethics and old-school machismo are completely out of place in the modern criminal world.
How much Dom Hemingway will work for you really depends on how much you can buy into Dom as a character. It’s very much a character piece, one about a man who believed himself a legend coming to terms with his own decidedly less-than-legendary self. It’s almost like a film in which Charles Bronson from Refn’s film finally gets out of prison to realize how little being Charles Bronson ultimately amounts to.
I can’t say it’s pulled off perfectly, though. After the mid-movie shift occurs and Dom is brought violently down to Earth, you can often sense the film growing bored with its new, less bombastic main character and concocting reasons for the old Dom to re-emerge and open a safe by humping it or threaten someone with an eloquence only otherwise seen in Al Swearengen. It’s because of this that the shift in the film’s second half can sometimes feel disingenuous or half-hearted.
The film works best in the long run as a stylistic experiment, an exercise in crafting a mood and character and then spending the rest of the film breaking it down, if a bit reluctantly. While I can say it works, I can’t also, in good conscious, say it works well, or to any amazing or revelatory effect. Moonrise Kingdom succeeded in pulling the same trick, after all, and pulled the switch in the last couple minutes of the film to boot, rather than devoting most of the second half to it. Law’s outrageous performance is certainly memorable, but that aside, this is the kind of film I expect to only be faintly remembered a year from now.