Far be it for this critic to call DVD distributors Lionsgate liars, but their recent release of French existential drama Baxter has absolutely nothing to do with horror. Of sure, in the proper light, when viewed at a certain angle and adjusted for manipulative marketing ease, someone could vaguely sketch out a scary movie dynamic. After all, the narrative revolves around the instinctual action of a pitbull terrier as he tries to adjust to three perturbing family situations. When trapped, or feeling misunderstood, our canine hero explains his reasons for lashing out, and then proceeds to cause his animalistic anarchy...sometimes with fatal results. But this isn't some kind of continental cosmopolitan Cujo. We aren't about to witness a murderous Man's Best Friend recast in post-Parisian particulars. Instead, this is a surreal social commentary in which humans are far more horrible than their mammalian mates - and yet everyone points to the poor dog when an old lady falls down the stairs, or an infant almost drowns. How typical.
When we first meet Baxter, he is a resident at a local kennel. As he explains in his casual, collected voice over narration, he's not used to people, and doesn't think he'll find them compatible with what he wants out of life. As fate would have it, he is given away as a gift to an old matron, Mrs. Deville. Warned by a friend that a dog will lead to an early death (since he will become the focus of her entire world, shutting her off from the rest of life), she soon becomes emotionally attached to the beast. Letting everything else go, she's a veritable hermit in her house. Upon her untimely passing, Baxter ends up with a neighboring couple. At first, everything is bliss. But soon, a baby is born, and our canine companion grows jealous. An accident by the fish pond sends our determined dog packing. Finally, a young boy trains him to be an attack dog, using the newly honed hound as a lookout while he plays more and more disturbing games of fantasy based on Hitler's final days in his bunker. But even then, Baxter is uneasy. Killing is not in his nature, it's just a part of it. He doesn't want to be a murderer on demand. But that might just be what his new master is after.
Baxter is a befuddling little film, a self-righteous slice of fey French filmmaking that wears its wobbly ambitions all over its pompous puffy sleeves. To repeat the previously mentioned caveat, this is not some suspense filled attack dog diorama. We are not about to spend 81 meaningless minutes with a craven killer animal looking to unleash its bloodlust on an unknowing local populace. Instead, co-writer/director Jérôme Boivin wants to employ the unusual people/pet premise to create some kind of three part social commentary. It's clear that each one of the title character's caregivers are meant to represent some sad/psychologically unsound element of the human condition, from the needy and rejected old woman to the pre-adolescent mistaking violence (and its premiere ephemeral example - Hitler and the Nazis) for power and sexuality. In between we see how procreation destroys individual personality, and adultery deadens familial interaction. Hoping that the canine POV will lessen some of the message's overpowering pretension (it doesn't), Boivin strives to simplify and pigeonhole the problems he sees. Unfortunately, the dog angle actually deadens his design, rendering it the musings of an observer with the brain the size of a walnut. Man's mangy, flea-bitten best friend may be a lot of things, but he's definitely not Moliere. Very few sociologists spend as much time grooming their privates as this cur does.
So where does this leave Baxter, exactly? Can this kind of esoteric approach to such a formulaic narrative actually work? The answer is obvious - No. Instead, the film becomes the cinematic equivalent of a car crash, a 'can't look away' calamity that should have PETA protesting in perpetuity. When we first meet our hound hero, he's part of a problematic puppy mill where every animal seems pissed off and primed to strike. Conditions in these cases are alarming at best. When he winds up with his first owner, there's a weird sexual undercurrent that's purposely forwarded by Boivin (after stroking her aging chest, the old woman invites Baxter into her bath. Ewwww!). The middle act is the least abusive, since our pup protagonist actually redeems himself by literally pushing a baby into a fish pond (and who said dogs were dumb?). No, the real hate crimes occur when our waifish little whippersnapper with a Fuhrer fixation decides to train Baxter to kill. Between whippings for failing to maul a stranger and the intentional poisoning of some puppies, we keep wondering how low this anti-humane harangue will sink. The answer comes in the finale, when our four-legged lead faces off against the misguided kid. Mr. Mutt has a mouth full of razor sharp teeth and a confused loyalty to the lad. The boy is demented and well on his way to serial killer status. He also has a massive lead pipe. Guess what happens next? Who wins in the end becomes a craven afterthought.
If you're shocked by such a conclusion - or this critic's complete spoiling of the finale - then it's time to grow up a little. As heartless as such a scenario seems, it's an obvious outcome of a completely spineless society - one that, sadly, has only gotten worse in the 18 years since this film was first released. Don't believe it? Just ask all those NFL players who find dogfighting an acceptable part of their cultural community. If this movie was remade today, they'd toss the old school Third Reich routine out for a far more relevant rock/rap strategy. Thankfully, organizations like the ASPCA would be all over the production, guaranteeing the safety of all involved. One of the more disturbing aspects of Baxter is how callous the filmmakers are toward their animal star. While it may all be slick smoke and mirrors, cinematic trickery to up the ick factor, our pitbull protagonist is kicked, beaten and pummeled with rocks. We don't see the actual destruction, but there's a sequence before where pieces of concrete and boulder ricochet off its head and snout in a particularly unsettling manner. Of course, Boivin would argue that this is all necessary to establish his point - that humans operate and hate in a way totally unique and corrupt inside the animal kingdom. Our furry Freud makes it very clear that other creatures only conform to nature, allowing instinct to drive their decisions. Too bad that all this deeper meaning is closeted in a confusing, corrupt vision that's no more insightful than the people it wants to persecute.
Why Lionsgate would want to dig up this freakish filmic felony is anyone's guess. They definitely didn't do so to jazz up the transfer. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks particularly old, the colors slightly faded and the contrasts lacking clarity. There's a flat, formless style to the movie, and the lack of real artistic acumen is evident in all the handheld doggy perspectives. It's a watchable movie, but the image offered for Baxter is very far from reference quality. Very far indeed.
It's nothing but Dolby Digital Mono for those interested in this title. The French soundtrack is tinny and sharp, the dialogue delivered in a way that sounds almost overdubbed. The English subtitles are fine, not intrusive and complimenting the native language rather well.
Aside from a series of trailers, there is no other added content offered here, and that's a shame. Baxter is the kind of movie that needs its contextual explanations, otherwise it's judged solely by its obviously insular designs - always a mistake.
Creating a clear critical quandary, Baxter is both a competently helmed expositional experiment and a sin against St. Francis and all he stood for. Giving this a grade that will satisfy both the film fan and the nature lover will be next to impossible. This critic found nothing entertaining or enlightening about this meandering mean spirited mess, but he's also sure that some of director Boivin's better ideas were definitely tempered by the excessive amount of puppy pounding. As a result, a rating of Rent It is the only legitimate way to go. It will allow anyone who's interested in this story to test drive the DVD without having to own it outright. And who knows, maybe you'll see the point in all this dreary dog's life drama. Baxter may be an idiosyncratic concept unexceptionally realized, but it earns a few anemic accolades for trying. And remember - it's not a horror film, no matter how the cover art tries to con you.
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