The splendid films written by Mike White, notably Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl, are deceptively simple. Or maybe they're deceptively complex. I get those two mixed up. But you know what I mean: There's more to them than meets the eye.
White's tales are so straightforward and so narrowly focused that it takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate the elegance of his structure and the depth of his thinking. That's an odd thing to say, since he doesn't clutter his screenplays with flashbacks or dream sequences or outlandish subplots like David Lynch or Guillermo Arriaga (whose scripts for Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel were directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu). White tells linear stories in which the main character -- a young man obsessed with a boyhood friend in Chuck and Buck, a bored discount-store employee in The Good Girl -- is in darn near every scene.
His latest work, Year of the Dog, marks White's debut behind the camera, but you couldn't tell if you didn't know. It looks just like Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl (both of which Miguel Arteta directed), and it has the same single-minded fixation with its central character. Most important, it has White's distinctive deadpan tone. He seemingly invites us to laugh at his innocuous protagonist in the opening sequences, then springs some calamity on her that is assuredly not funny. From that point on, White walks a tightrope between absurdity and pathos that keeps us so off-balance we aren't sure what's the appropriate response.
Year of the Dog stars Molly Shannon as Peggy, a single suburban secretary who seems perfectly content to stay in her tightly circumscribed comfort zone with her equally inoffensive dog Pencil. The unexpected death of her pet triggers a succession of events that transforms Peggy from milquetoast to activist, and catapults her in a whole new direction. (It has nothing to do with contaminated pet food, rest assured.)
White's movies, with their precisely modulated dialogue, simple shots (the camera doesn't move very much) and perversity lurking millimeters under the surface, remind me of the well-mannered but bitterly caustic films of writer-directors Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dolhouse) and Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World). You could say that the work of all three filmmakers is an acquired taste, but I'm not sure how you develop an appreciation for their movies if you don't already have a bad attitude. Uh, I mean a healthy skepticism of conformity, consumerism and the other forces that drive our society.
No need to raise your hand to signal your membership in the club. If you're still reading, you're likely already a fan of Mike White's off-kilter sensibility, and your bad-attitude papers are in order. But I can't recommend Year of the Dog unequivocally to you. The plotting this time around feels contrived, whereas it seemed unforced in Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl. That is, I had the sense in the earlier films that the characters were plowing ahead and engineering their own fates. Peggy's behavior has less of a foundation, and so her actions seem less like her own idea than the whims of the screenwriter.
But, as I said at the beginning, the extent of White's intent can't be completely grasped in one go. So I reserve the right to reverse myself, after I see Year of the Dog a second time.