“ZEN DOG” stars; Kyle Gallner, Adam Herschman, Celia Diane, Clea DuVall, and features the narration of famed British philosopher Alan Watts. It’s written and directed by Rick Darge, and follows the character of Mud (Gallner).
A young man stuck in a mundane job, and a monotonous life, one without fulfillment. Until his the day his cousin Dwayne arrives to stay the week with him, and introduces Mud to the concept of lucid dreaming.
Mud has been having a reoccurring nightmare that while working at his corporate job a man kills himself just as he enters the room. With the hopes of helping curb this violent nightmare, Dwayne gives his cousin an herbal tea that he says will help Mud’s ability to control his dreams. Something Mud will soon crave as he dreams himself on a road-trip across the country in a vibrantly colorful Volkswagen. As he meets different people along the way, lives outside of his normal comforts, and finds love, he will reach a level of self-discovery many people only fantasize about.
Before diving into the meat of this review and my thoughts on it. I will say this film may not be for everyone. That isn’t to say it is not a great film, because in fact it certainly is. But if you are the type who prefers a more traditional approach to story-telling, and a more conventional three-act structure, you may find “Zen Dog” very different. If you also like a stories message to be very cut-and-dry in its delivery, where you feel you know exactly what the intended message was, you will find this script much more intense than you may be expecting.
With that said, those things are exactly why I would recommend this movie. It breaks the mold of the road-trip movie. And in doing so it breaks the mold of almost every other film-making element as well as it used a deeply artistic approach to its telling of the story. An approach I found to be extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Sometimes a persons most amazing adventures or experiences can happen in their dreams. The concept of “what if we could return to one of our most amazing dreams” is something many of us have thought of. That is what this film captures with a compelling, comical, and inspirational adventure through the life of the main character.
Kyle Gallner was fantastic in the lead and delivers an understated performance as Mud. He was able to create two very similar, but but profoundly different personalities. You could sense his boredom and lack of inspiration as he goes about his daily routine and the stark contrast between that and his persona in his dream-state was very effective and appealing to sit back and watch. Gallner rides a smooth balance between these parallels. He was perfectly suited for this role and delivers a subtle charisma that makes you connect with him very easily.
Adam Herschman was also great in this film. His mannerisms, expressions, and gestures were all quirky, and his effortless comedic impact on this film without a doubt make this story so enjoyable to watch. The comedy was organic and delivers a perfectly woven balance with the more dramatic themed tone of the overall story. The chemistry between Gallner and Herschman felt so naturally awkward, their dialogue felt real and grounded, and watching them converse back and forth added such a strong element to their performances.
The visuals in this film were stunning on every level. When a films intention is to tell a story in such an artistic way, as this one does, something vital in my opinion is the director and cinematographer being on the same page. That was clearly the case in this film as the result was a beautifully crafted film on many levels.
The choice of shooting styles between the awake and dream states were crisp and effective in their delivery. The dream parallel was vibrant and colorful and shot more intimately as it brings you on this journey. Yet, during the time the character is awake all the color is washed out and the camera angles are much simpler in technique. Which I found to be a great balance for the two stories this film told.
Montage-like sequences that play over the narration of Alan Watts were an incredible combination and together they inspire so much thought. These scenes, at first may seem jumbled. But they do feel like there is a methodical intention for their placement over the narrative. This to me, is what makes the re-watch value of this movie so high.
These days we all watch so many movies on a regular basis and many of them are all the same, or often Frankenstein-like jumbles of many films. But when a movie can stand on its own, show that it was drawing from inspiration, yet still taking the direction in their own creative way, is very commendable. “Zen Dog” does just that and the ambition taken into the writing, the visuals, and the overall message of the this plot, are what make this such a unique and intriguing film. One that people should take the time to enjoy for themselves, even if it’s simply to sit down and see something different from the norm.