Director Sophie Dupuis
Director Sophie Dupuis on the set with actors Théodore Pellerin (left) and Jean-Simon Leduc (right)
Cameraman Mathieu Laverdière
Mathieu Laverdière with actor Théodore Pellerin
FAMILY FIRST (Chien de Garde) B-
aka: Watch Dog
Canada (88 mi) 2018 d: Sophie Dupuis
The first-time feature film from this young Canadian writer/director is a throwback to earlier styles, David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), Robin Pront’s The Ardennes (D’Ardennen) (2015), or even the Safdie Brother’s Good Time (2017), all dysfunctional family crime dramas with a frenetic pace to them, though there are similarities to Xavier Dolan’s 2015 Top Ten List #1 Mommy as well, featuring a young man whose untreated personality disorder only exacerbates with age and the onset of puberty, as it tends to explode at the worst times. Two brothers are basically enforcers in their family’s protection racket in Montreal, the more laid-back big brother JP (Jean-Simon Leduc), who has a stable girlfriend Mel (Claudel Laberge), and his off-the-wall 19-year old brother Vincent (Théodore Pellerin), whose disturbing behavior problems drive this film, an uncontrolled monster who’s so out of his mind most of the time that JP continually has to reel him back in, with Pellerin offering one of the breakout performances of the year, filled with raw energy, impossible to forget, simply overwhelming most of the time, reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (1973), a crazed force that borders on being a mentally deranged criminal psychopath. To top it off, they live with their alcoholic mother (Maude Guérin) who goes on and off the wagon, completely helpless when it comes to the exasperatingly annoying habits of Vincent, who crawls into bed with her all the time, with suggestions of incest. Wherever Vincent is, on the street, in clubs, or at home, he’s an absolute disaster driving everyone else batty, though he’s an imposing and threatening force capable of doing anything, not easy to contend with, especially for JP, who loves his brother, always looking out for him, but couldn’t be more worn out and exhausted just trying to calm him down all the time and keep him out of trouble. It turns out they work for their uncle Dany (Paul Ahmarani), who runs a drug business out of his bar in Montreal’s working class neighborhood of Verdun, employed as debt collectors, with instructions to rough people up if they don’t pay, to do damage, a job Vincent sadistically thrives on, as it gives him an adrenaline rush. The in-your-face intensity level of the opening wave of energy is just off the charts, where these guys turn into party boys at night, thrill seekers roaming the clubs, drinking and dancing and doing drugs like there’s no tomorrow, using dizzying handheld camerawork from Mathieu Laverdière as they roam through the city streets like they own it.
While the criminal code is to look out for your family first, a creed JP lives by while trying to finish his training as an electrician, but Mel, who lives with him in his mother’s home, finds Vincent too intensely tormenting, as she can barely get in or out of there without having to endure his crude taunts that feel more like sexual harassment, where she has to put up with the creepy way he carries on with his mother, and is literally a psycho on the street. So from the outset, Mel is urging JP to move out, but he’s torn by the idea, as he realizes what a load his brother is, and doesn’t think Vincent could survive without him, as he needs constant attention and reassurance, where he may be the only person in the world who can calm him down. As we follow the brothers in their daily routines, much like the Harvey Keitel character of Charlie in Mean Streets, JP is grappling with his developing moral conscience, as he realizes his uncle is a thug who couldn’t care less about Vincent, but is willing to exploit his uncontrollable behavior to his advantage, as the guy’s a scary proposition even for hardened criminals to handle, as he doesn’t think things through, but just reacts to each situation with an explosive force. When they’re sent to collect money from a single mother in front of her children, JP draws the line, refusing to beat her up in front of her children, something Vincent has no qualms doing, as he’s always eager to unleash with his typical physical ferocity. While Mel and JP have a calmer and more rational relationship, without all the drama, his family is a minefield of unexploded bombs, where anywhere you step something’s liable to explode, where he’s growing tired of taking all the incidental hits of emotional shrapnel, where each day is another waiting disaster. Guérin’s larger than life performance as the mother of all mood swings might recall Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom who just wants to love “the boys,” knowing they are cold blooded criminals, but in this case she hasn’t a clue what she’s doing. While the opening is a fast-paced, visceral thrill fest, the second half slows down considerably, growing more contemplative as JP is up against it, especially with his equally determined uncle, and a brother that he simply can’t handle 24-hours a day. For a first film, the acting is exceptional, with Pellerin and Maude Guérin winning Canadian film awards presented annually in the mainly French-speaking film industry in Québec, along with another award for best editing, while this film has also been chosen as the Canadian film entered into the Academy Award Best Foreign Film competition.
Ostensibly a wild ride through the criminal underworld trying to bite off just a bit more than they can chew, where Dany grows overambitious, thinking he can eliminate his problems by taking care of the competition, but JP realizes where this is heading and isn’t remotely interested in becoming a hit man, where he’d likely spend the rest of his life running or rotting in jail, but Dany won’t take no for an answer, and if JP refuses, there’s always Vincent. JP tries to reason with him, reminding him of Vincent’s mental deficiencies, where he’s already unstable enough as it is, suggesting that would put him over the edge and likely be the end of him, as he’s hardly a professional. Dany’s unconcerned, claiming it’s all a matter of business, putting money ahead of family, while Vincent thrives on the idea of being important, loving the limelight and a chance to show up his older brother. Amped up on rap music, even a battle of profanity-laden rappers that viciously go at one another, like a test of testosterone, while the already erratic Vincent starts to become unhinged, not used to being the top dog on the block, while JP becomes the lone figure in his family capable of holding it all together, even as it’s coming apart at the seams. It’s an ambitious character-driven thriller that reeks of uncomfortable confrontations, with viewers literally squirming in their seats every time Vincent acts up, which is nonstop and neverending. Truly, you’ve never seen a performance like this, as its jawdroppingly creepy. It’s inconceivable that no one would ever think to get help for this kid, as he’s crying out for it, but his family has always had other concerns going mano a mano, where each carries their own weight, like gunslingers from the Wild West. Growing up without a mother (too drunk to care), JP has been the man of the family from an early age, going through a tremendous amount of psychological and emotional pressure, always having to adjust to any situation and show his resilience. Mel as a calming influence seems to tip the scales towards another alternative, where he won’t have to go on suicidal missions, but how can he protect Vincent, who’s already in troubled waters? Growing darker and murkier as things veer out of control, the pace of the film slows to a crawl, as viewers wait and wonder what will happen. This young director is in the Kathryn Bigelow mode, having more balls than most male directors, where she seems to flourish at the challenge.