There is nothing more endearing that the story of a dog and its loyal owner, and this is eminently the case with the fact-based MEGAN LEAVEY. Usually the stuff of sentiment of the most syrupy nature, these stories usually inhabit a special sub-genre of family-friendly flicks designed to reassure the intrinsic goodness of the family unit, and of the universe in general, to an audience that seeks nothing more from said film than that ci-mentioned reassurance to go with its popcorn and soda.
Not so this bracing and occasionally abrasive film. This story about two lost souls who come to depend on each other for survival bluntly, and brilliantly, defies convention on many fronts, including the cardinal rule: make the protagonists cuddly. Neither the title character, a Marine played with fierce, simmering resentment by Kate Mara, nor her dog, a member of the K9 corps tasked with finding bombs, are even remotely approachable. The snarl and bark of one a perfect trans-species translation of the other’s.
Leavey joins the Marines not so much as a career as a lateral move away from the tedium of failure and rejection at home. Spectacularly unsuited to her job at a daycare center, barely tolerated by her mother (Edie Falco) and step-father, and unwillingly estranged from her father whose work takes up all his time, she finds herself at odds with the military as well. Given one last chance, she is given a punishment assignment to clean out the dog kennels. There she meets Rex, who stares her down. There is no doubt that this is a creature capable of inflicting serious damage. But there is something about the way Leavey takes this in, recognizing a kindred spirit, or is it just grudging respect from someone not given to respect anything, even herself? This meeting is fraught with portent.
A series of events pairs the two, who bond over the uncertainty of unfamiliar, hostile surroundings in Iraq, and the positive reinforcement of finding a job at which they are not just good, they are stellar. Forget formulaic plot devices. There is subtlety and solid writing at work here. Leavey’s psyche is summed up in a devastating moment when her mother casually asks who she’s named as a beneficiary if she’s killed in combat. The pause as Mara fixes her eyes on Falco, delivers a terse response in a quiet voice that escapes tight lips, and then leaves quickly and without looking back. The commanding officer (Common), who carries his authority with such ease that it allows compassion as an integral component. The refreshingly unsentimental romance with a fellow Marine dog-handler that preserves Leavey’s autonomy and reinforces her newfound return to humanity. It’s why when she takes on the Marines and the United States government to save Rex, it’s a natural, logically inescapable reaction reflecting everything that she was, and that she has become.
The dangers of war are presented here in ways that as uncompromising at Mara’s gritty performance. From the tension of a drive through a city filled with civilians who have no reason to welcome Leavey and her comrades, to the prescribed viciousness of dealing with an Iraqi child who wants to know Rex’s name, the atmosphere of omnipresent death that can erupt at any moment is a gut-punch. It’s the same gut-punch we get when Rex, ready to be retired from the corps, faces euthanasia after being classified as unadoptable.
For all of Mara’s superb work as Leavey, shading a performance that never once panders to its audience, let’s take a moment to recognize Rex, too. However it was done, the performance is every bit as vivid, even nuanced, as Mara’s. How they did it is feat worthy of every accolade available, and perhaps a few invented for the purpose of recognizing this achievement. Without it, MEGAN LEAVEY would be a lesser film.
MEGAN LEAVEY is a gritty film about the war in Iraq, and the war at home that drives so many recruits into it. It’s a powerfully uplifting film that looks at its subjects with clear eyes, understanding their faults, and celebrating their triumphs, as well as showing us the real meaning of heroism.