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THE BIG DOG ★★½
(M) 83 minutes
Masculinity is in crisis, or so I hear. But has there ever been an era when it wasn’t? Not in my adult lifetime, certainly. Although I can’t recall a diagnosis of the malaise quite like The Big Dog, a hit-and-miss first feature from Sydney writer-director Dane McCusker that plays as a cross between an old-fashioned sex farce and one of Michael Haneke’s takedowns of the hypocritical bourgeoisie.
Julian Garner plays Richard, a stockbroker with a taste for the wild side in The Big Dog.
Closer to home, another analogue for the film’s punishing side would be Rolf De Heer’s 2003 Adelaide morality tale, Alexandra’s Project, which preserves a similar unity of space and time in following a smug patriarch through the worst day of his life. McCusker’s designated victim is Richard Morgan (Julian Garner), a polo-shirted stockbroker whose harbourside mansion is kept in pristine order by his stay-at-home wife, Kelly (Felicity Price), who sweeps up the coffee grounds he spills next to the plunger without a murmur.
It’s the weekend, and Kelly is puttering around preparing for their son’s graduation party that evening (in Alexandra’s Project, the corresponding occasion is a birthday: both films use a colourful homemade banner to represent the idyll about to shatter). Sam (Michael Monk), the son in question, is a weepy incel who would rather stay in bed, but that’s far from the biggest worry on his father’s mind.
The perfect life Richard and Kellie (Felicity Price) have is destined to come crashing down.
Richard’s secret is his submissive side, which he indulges through an arrangement with Paige (Asha Boswarva), a psychology student who moonlights as a financial dominatrix or “findom” (this is a real thing you can Google, as I assume McCusker did). While they’ve never met in the flesh, she’s licensed to hit him where it hurts by draining his bank accounts, as well as putting him through ritual humiliations via FaceTime.
All this is laid out in broad, caricatured strokes, underlined by sprightly passages in Sam Weiss’ score. McCusker has a knack for the kind of widescreen compositions that appear to be laying the groundwork for slapstick catastrophe: when Richard is gazing out from his balcony or reacting to the neighbour’s dog barking behind a hedge, we can well imagine how his world might collapse in a physical sense as well as a psychological one.
But while the antic tone is never entirely dropped, the comic pay-offs never really arrive – and by the time Richard is lying on the floor crying and Sam is mumbling ominously about a “day of reckoning”, it’s clear McCusker is aiming for something other than low farce, or indeed the highbrow heartlessness of a Haneke.
In the end, we’re supposed to feel something for all the characters. But that depends on getting us to see them not as caricatures but as credible people – a trick the film doesn’t always manage, especially not with Paige, whose motives make little sense once she drops her dominatrix persona. Truthfully, I was also never clear what she spent all Richard’s money on, unless the rents for Sydney share houses have risen more steeply than I’ve been told.
The Big Dog is released in cinemas on November 9.
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