ZEN DOG Review
Director: Rick Darge
There was perhaps not a more appropriate film to watch in the current state I’m in than ZEN DOG. A year out of college, things are much the same as they ever were. As with virtually all of my peers, from an early age I was promised that the gate to fame and fortune would be unlocked with a degree in my hand, and similarly, as with virtually all of my peers, I’ve discovered that that is simply not the case. I wake up later than I should, log into the world wide web, and stay there until the wee hours of the morning, occasionally doing the work that my middling part-time job allots me, but mostly just furiously applying to jobs as I’ve been doing since May of 2016, hoping for a miracle to occur. I’m stuck in a rut, and ZEN DOG offers the comfort that anyone experiencing a similar state of existential malaise is not alone.
Reed (Kyle Gallner) is the perfect stand-in for any disaffected millennial. Unable to break out of a rigid daily routine with a job that he’s clearly not interested in, his apartment may be plentiful, but this is a man clearly in search of a metaphorical home. When his schlubby cousin Dwayne (Adam Herschmann) come to visit for spring break, the stage seems set for a week of goaded debauchery. However, Reed quickly becomes irrevocably obsessed with the psychedelic that Dwayne introduces him to, a potent Chinese concoction that transports the listener to a fully realized, dream-like reality. Enjoying the untethered version of himself that he’s allowed to be in this alternate realm and spurred on by the wise words of Alan Watts (because who else?), Kyle soon goes on a road trip wherein he ponders the universal question of life: who are we, and why are we here?
Pictured: A man who gon learn today
Those looking for a firmly structured narrative will find themselves frustrated, but Darge’s film impeccably replicates the meandering, lackadaisical nature of the effects of substances that Reed makes ample use of. While Reed’s predilection for denim jackets and thrift store detours may err on the side of Tumblr. posturing, the cinematography and editing techniques utilized during the sequences of tripping themselves are a lovingly tendered depiction of the hyper-sensitivity and temporal displacement that such vices provide. Feeling like a music video in the best way possible, the overall milieu is one of bittersweet risks and chances never taken, Reed’s genuine love for life while under the influence provides a melancholic reversal of his sheer complacency while sober.
While it would have indeed felt familiar, the film seems to be missing a roiling undercurrent of tension wherein Reed’s life in reality slowly decays due to his dedication to staying in the altered state. Although we get hints and peeks as to his professional life slowly crumbling away, Reed seems to make his personal realizations without having to hit a disastrous reset button, avoiding rock bottom. This is what separates ZEN DOG from its peers, and ultimately adds a sense of verisimilitude. While perhaps cheating its audience of a sense of booming closure, on the other hand, it’s much easier to relate and endear ourselves to a man who reflects what many of us experience: a long, hard slog out of disaffection and ennui, not a pummelling swan dive to the bottom before starting with a clean slate.
Assuming driving this car doesn’t constitute rock bottom
Another unexpected subversion of typical tropes occurs with the movie’s branding of itself as a road trip movie and its actual presentation as such. Reed’s journey kicks off as a personal Odyssey, with a standout scene occurring early-on when he encounters the mercurial and ominous couple of Devin (Devin Finch) and Wendy (Sady Diallo), a freewheelin’ couple looking to have someone bear witness to their strange sexual proclivities. This seems to suggest that the film will entirely shift to a string of vignettes, with Reed exploring more of the world and its denizens than he would ever have met on his own. While Reed’s wheels keep hitting the open road, upon meeting Maya (Celia Diane), the tonal focus shifts more into an exploration of the psychedelic star-crossed lovers as opposed to a continual stream of bit players imparting their wisdom upon him. Coupled with the pleasantly surprising amount of time developing Reed and Dwayne, ZEN DOG is effectively a road trip movie that transcends the parameters of its parent genre to offer something much more quietly pensive and melancholic.
In addition, the film seems willing to turn a more critical eye on the concept of soul-seeking itself than we’re typically used to seeing. In what I found to be one of the most evocative scenes of the movie, Reed and Maya end up in Chicago, asking their cab driver to take them to “his Chicago.” He takes them to a preferred rooftop, where he instructs them to yell anything they want at the city. While Reed and Maya can only bring themselves to cheer and howl, the cab driver continually screams, “Fuck you, Chicago!” into the void. Reed seems to eventually grow uncomfortable and demands they leave, but Maya is either oblivious or uncaring. This is an important scene for demonstrating how in the process of undergoing a journey they insist is vital for their own self-improvement and realization, they still turn a blind eye to a man clearly in need of a sympathetic ear. Is the very concept itself of insisting you need a change selfish, if you can’t even be bothered to help and improve those around you while you’re helping and improving yourself? This understated undercurrent is ZEN DOG’s most powerful hand.
I personally could have done without the Alan Watts, but nevertheless, Darge deserves credit for turning in something infinitely more subtle and strange than what is initially promise. It ultimately neglects to spoonfeed you a grand conclusion, but those who follow Reed on his journey will rest easy knowing he’s at least happier and more well-rounded than before, if still unsure of what’s to come next. ZEN DOG won’t speak to everyone, but it will speak to those who believe that there’s something bigger, brighter, and better out there. An entirely new life is just a long, long drive away if you have the wherewithal to up and make it, but the film does itself a favor by not insisting that this is the only way to happiness. If you spend your entire life dreaming of escaping, you’ll miss any chance of contentment right where you are.