Zen Dog


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Zen Dog
"Not only visually intelligent but ravishingly beautiful."

As the old James Bond theme says, you have one life for yourself and one for your dreams. But what's the use of that in a modern culture that puts so much emphasis on productivity that it doesn't have time for dreaming? Mud (Kyle Gallner) is attempting, like many people of his generation, to make a living from dreams of a sort - specifically, from virtual reality cityscapes which bring the world into the living rooms of people who are unable to travel. But he's stuck in a rut. Something is missing and, having shut off his imaginative life, he can't place what it is. Enter childhood friend Dwayne (Adam Herschman), who teaches him the art of lucid dreaming and introduces him to counterculture ideas that spent the past four decades slumbering.

There are shades of Inception here as Mud is taught how to distinguish the difference between dream and reality, but it's understanding how the two lives interrelate that's the real trick. Director Rick Darge formerly worked as a cinematographer and it shows in his confident command of colour and light. The film always looks beautiful, but shifts from cool shades of grey, black and chrome into dazzling hypercolour as Mud slips into the world of his dreams. A graffiti-daubed Volkswagen sums up and symbolises the psychedelic, but it's Darge's use of visual technique associated with the great road movies of the LSD era, from Easy Rider to Two Lane Blacktop, that creates a sense of cinematic time travel - all whilst the hypnotic voice of philosopher Alan Watts about what and where, exactly, is now.

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The result of all this is not only visually intelligent but ravishingly beautiful, with excellent use of location filming (which never once betrays the small size of the budget) as Mud dreams his way around the 'States. It's an imaginative triumph in itself and challenge it represents to conventional thinking is as important now as it was during the Nixon era. Mud's new experience of the world is complicated by the parallel trip that is falling in love, a chemical process that sees the brain produce and bliss out on its own opioids, reminding the viewer that there's more than one way to attain this enhanced perspective (whether or not Dwayne has drugged Mud, and what with, remains in question). Celia Diane gives a fierce enough performance to make a believable dream girl, and her presence is key to the visual shifts that see elements of dream colouration leach through into our hero's more mundane existence.

It's all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober - a stranger's trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger's role-playing character - but Zen Dog is something different. There's real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess. Darge has made a bold choice and achieved something commendable. Some dreams deserve to be revisited. As our culture explores new means of bringing them to life, this film couldn't be more timely.

Reviewed on: 14 Jun 2018
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Trapped by daily routine, a man experiences complete freedom by dreaming himself across the country in a psychedelic Volkswagen with the guiding words of philosopher Alan Watts.

Director: Rick Darge

Writer: Rick Darge

Starring: Kyle Gallner, Adam Herschman, Celia Diane

Year: 2016

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US


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