[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Dom Hemingway opens today in limited release.]
If the Oscars had a category for Most Creative Use of Vulgar Language (and they should), writer-director Richard Sheperd would be worthy of a Lifetime Achievement Award for Dom Hemingway. Rarely has the use of dirty words become a virtuoso masterpiece of language, but Dom Hemingway turns swearing into high art. Sheperd provides the words, but star Jude Law brings them to vile, explosive, hilarious life in what may be the best performance of his career thus far. There’s also a story and character development that’s all well and good, but Dom Hemingway is mostly about grabbing us by the throat and pummeling us with filthy, hilarious speeches and one-liners.
Dom Hemingway gets us from the very first sentence followed by a monologue I will not even begin to quote here because I don’t want to diminish its impact. After Dom Hemingway (Law) wows us with his jaw-dropping soliloquy, he’s released from prison after a twelve-year stint. The violent, angry, slightly psychotic criminal kept his mouth shut during his time in the joint, and now is going to get what he’s owed for his silence from crime kingpin Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). Dom, unfortunately, can’t seem to get out of his own way. A more polite, refined man would be able to take his cash, and then move on to repairing the strained relationship he has with his daughter (Emilia Clarke). Dom is not a polite, refined man, and armed only with his foul mouth and accompanied by his beleaguered friend Dickie (Richard E. Grant), Hemingway must struggle to improve his fortunes.
Dom is a grandiloquent shit, and comes right the borderline of someone you would actively avoid. The plotline leads him to try and learn some humility because he’s apparently incapable of understanding that the world isn’t fair, especially the world occupied by criminals. Dom chalks it up to “bad luck” without seemingly to realize just how far he’s already pushed his luck. He also can’t seem to realize how good he has it, or appreciate his remarkable knack for self-sabotage.
On paper, Dom is a guy we shouldn’t want to spend a moment with let alone an entire picture, but never underestimate the power of humor and charisma. Dom can beat the crap out of an innocent guy within the first ten minutes, and he can verbally abuse anyone within eyesight, but when his one-liners are so sharp and his personality so magnetic, we only want to see the character one-up himself with the next insult. Shepard not only writes crackerjack dialogue, but the highly stylized direction almost makes it feel like Dom is in the director’s chair. The tone is brash, bold, and perfectly in tune with the lead performance.
Jude Law is absolutely on fire as Hemingway. Law has had plenty of great performances in his career, but this one is easily my favorite. Law approaches Dom with all of the seriousness of a Shakespeare character. The actor’s commitment to his character makes Hemingway’s unrelenting vanity and spite truly mind-blowing. Sheperd’s vulgar language rolls off Law’s tongue like beautiful poetry. The Oscar-nominated actor also handles the emotional side of the character, but the comedy is where Dom is untouchable. I would also be remiss if I didn’t give credit to Grant, whose dry wit provides a nice compliment to the lunatic protagonist.
I make it a point to avoid spoiling specific jokes in comedies, and that means I have to paint the humor in broad strokes rather than provide examples. So much of Dom Hemingway’s power comes from not knowing what Sheperd and Law are going to dish out next. I believe the movie will have a long shelf life as a highly-quotable feature, but until that time comes, you’ll just have to trust me that Dom Hemingway is exquisite.