What do you do if you're fortunate enough to be aware when the pendulum of fate swings in your favor? If you're Dom Hemingway, you grab hold and savor every second, because the other side of that arc is a lonely, desolate place to be.
In Richard Shepard's Dom Hemingway, Jude Law gives a stunning performance that is by turns hilariously ferocious and heart-wrenchingly vulnerable. And though Shepard's freewheeling screenplay may frustrate viewers seeking a more traditionally structured story, those who can savor a unique and unpredictable character drama will embrace this wickedly funny tale with open arms.
When we first meet Dom Hemingway (Law), he's delivering an impassioned speech about his own manhood while serving a 12-year prison sentence for refusing to give up his notorious boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demián Bichir). Before long, Dom is a free man and doing his best to make up for lost time. His head swimming with cocaine, whiskey, and women, he soon reconnects with his old cohort Dickie (Richard E. Grant), and the pair travel to the south of France for a special meeting with Fontaine, who's eager to show his gratitude with some impressively large stacks of cash. But, as you may have already guessed, that fickle pendulum has already begun to swing the other way, and in the aftermath of a drunken car accident on the winding country roads surrounding his boss's grand villa, Dom's money is stolen by Fontaine's bombshell girlfriend Paolina (Madalina Diana Ghenea). Desperate, injured, and destitute, Dom returns to London, where his attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter Evelyn (Emilia Clarke) are met with wary resistance. Meanwhile, his safecracking skills are still intact, and he tries to resume his criminal ways by working for his former nemesis's son Hugh (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a shady nightclub owner. However, this decision may lead to the loss of much, much more than his precious ego.
A talented storyteller with a knack for mixing crime and dark comedy, Richard Shepard has been active in film since the early '90s, but it wasn't until 2005's The Matador that moviegoers managed to stand up and take notice. An exquisitely crafted comedy centering on the friendship between a hit man and a hard-luck businessman, The Matador was quickly followed by The Hunting Party, an equally original and intriguing picture that made the fatal error of asking viewers to have a sense of humor about the search for a notorious Bosnian war criminal. In the years that followed, Shepard nurtured a successful career in television, directing episodes of Ugly Betty, 30 Rock, Criminal Minds, and most recently, Girls. If this history lesson seems like a long-winded way of saying that Shepard is a filmmaker who deserves wider recognition, stick a gold star on your forehead. Since the beginning, for better or for worse, Shepard has distinguished himself as an uncompromising writer specializing in unconventional characters. While that factor makes his films so enjoyably unique, it's likely also the factor that has prevented him from breaking into the Hollywood mainstream, with its bias for formula and personable protagonists.
Although the characters in his movies aren't always the kindest or most relatable people, as a writer he excels at exploring the traits that make them interesting, however unseemly those traits may seem on the surface. It's that ability that made us want to trust Pierce Brosnan's shady killer in The Matador, or follow Richard Gere's ethically compromised reporter into the fray in The Hunting Party. Here, the antihero of the hour is ex-con safecracker Hemingway, a likeable scofflaw with whom we'd eagerly share a drink, if we didn't feel like we'd end up paying for it with a broken nose. The embodiment of hedonism, Hemingway operates by a code of honor that only he can define, and that makes him utterly compelling. He is Shepard's most fascinating and colorful character to date, and in the hands of Law, he is much more complex than his initial appearance (and the showstopping speech that accompanies it) suggests. Likewise, Grant infuses his straight man with equal parts loyalty and affection, a factor that speaks volumes about both characters, and makes his rare moments of exuberance all the more hilarious. All the while, a killer retro soundtrack keeps the action moving along and reminds us that Dom's glory days are likely far gone.
If you've noticed that this review leans heavily on the concept of character, keep that in mind if you decide to spend some time with Dom Hemingway. Although his story is separated into chapters, like an adaptation of a novel that never existed, the film is more concerned with what makes Hemingway tick than propelling him through the tired motions of some predicable plot. Perhaps that's the reason why the movie feels so fresh, right up to its abrupt (and somewhat far-fetched) ending. Much like the man himself, everything in Dom Hemingway seems slightly exaggerated, leaving the film with a superficial shade of magic realism that's bound to enrage those who choose to play plot police. For everyone else, it's Dom's world and we're just lucky enough to live in it for a few hours.