Preiss plays Nate, a former mechanic and community college dropout who lives in his mom's house with fiancÚ Trish (Amy Lindsay). He isn't a happy guy, and it's immediately clear that his decision to join the Marines is an effort to please the selfish women in his life. Trish, desperate to get pregnant, wastes no time in belittling Nate ("Wait until you've made something of yourself," she advises him regarding his quest to find his father, who abandoned him at a young age). His mother (Candy Clark, nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for American Graffiti) is a little more kind with her passive-aggressive behavior, almost daring Nate to bail so she can call him a failure ("I'm scared," he admits. "Don't say that out loud...they'll think you're a coward.").
Meanwhile, young Andy (Bart Fletcher) is equally unhappy ("Your eyes are so sad," observes one acquaintance. "You need somebody special."). Having recently left the home of his shut-in, former actress mom (Diane Davisson), he's trying to get over a former love--a Marine that left him. "I wish I could see him again...I wish there was just some way I could go back and re-live it. Then, in a way, I could be prepared for what happened...I could let it go."
Andy yearns to hit the open road and find his calling in life, "just take off and let the universe lead me." He can't do that sleeping on his friend's couch, so in an effort to make some extra cash he lands on the casting mattress of an adult filmmaker--where he collides with the na´ve, nervous Nate, who soon leaves. Andy follows him out the door, and when his car won't start, Nate helps him and hitches a ride, starting an unlikely friendship that soon has both men (and most likely the audience) confused.
While most of the film is grounded in reality, there's a slightly surreal quality to the proceedings. It's not always crystal clear what exactly is going on, and the motives of the characters aren't always obvious. Has Andy developed an unhealthy attachment to Nate simply because he's a Marine? Is Nate gay, or just lonely and hungry for attention? As the film progresses, a few arcs take shape: We find out something about Andy that makes him a lot less sympathetic and likable, and Nate decides to track down his father.
But like all of the storylines in Dog Tags, both of these arcs feel like subplots to a bigger story that never takes shape--at least on its first viewing. When I first watched the movie, I felt it was afraid of commitment, just as lost as its characters. It wasn't quite sure where it wanted to go, and would have benefitted from a little more clarity of purpose. But there's something there that keeps you interested, and the film was a lot stronger for me on its second watch. Once you wrap your mind around the dynamic between the lead characters and accept the film's slightly unrealistic yet poetic tone, a sad, poignant and hopeful story awaits.
Not that the film is without fault: Some of the scene set-ups and dialogue feel a little awkward and unreal (Nate's "meeting" just feels off to me), and one small role is miscast (Willam Belli, who you might not recognize out of drag, doesn't fit his character). My biggest problem was buying that Nate (especially given his past!) would accept some of Andy's awful character traits (there's a scene in a hotel room about an hour in that had me yelling in frustration and disbelief).
Andy doesn't feel like a real person, and often comes across as artificial as his eyeliner. He's more of a story construction to bounce off Nate, and their bond--confusing as it is to them--doesn't feel authentic to me. While I think writer/director Damion Dietz wanted both characters to leave their mark, this is Nate's story all the way. The film is far more powerful if you don't take Andy's development too seriously.
Thankfully, the ending doesn't go where I feared it would, opting for a more believable approach that leaves you questioning character motivations, which is a good thing (although one late revelation is another development that feels a little unrealistic). Preiss does a good job of being pensive, his stony exterior barely covering his aching heart. Lindsay and Clark both do a great job in their less-than-admirable roles; Lindsay in particular is amazing with her iciness (little lines like "Is it plastic?" are delivered perfectly). Andy is the least developed character, leaving Fletcher with little to do but flash his cute smile and talk about his hopes (Nate speaks for all of us when he says "I'm a little confused...just trying to figure you out").
The film starts with Nate standing alone in an empty drive-in, a giant blank movie screen before him. That blank slate imagery creeps up as much as the film's slow songs, reinforcing the themes of loneliness, emptiness, breaking free and finding your identity. The film does a great job at establishing and maintaining a sense of ache and longing, and the intentions from everyone involved are admirable. Dog Tags doesn't have quite enough focus, especially in its midsection--like Nate, it's sometimes unsure. But it stays with you, and proves to be one of those rare films that improves with a second watch, absorbing you into its moody mystique.
"You realize there's something kind of ineffable going on...to me the movie was always a mystery," he says. "We really create our own pictures. If I tell you everything I felt when I was doing it, I feel it clouds your perception of the film...and really, what you bring to it and how you interpret it--that's the true experience."
Dietz notes the recurring visual motifs of blank slates and empty frames, and talks about the film's elastic, muddy structure: "It's about an infinite experience, and that's how the film is structured, like a M÷bius strip or something...life is all about doubt. You think you don't have any choices anymore, and you're just kind of going along in the world, and then you realize the world is this incredibly big and infinite place--and it's not just a place, it's an experience."
You get the sense that--like Andy--Dietz needed a second chance to make peace with a part of his past, and that this commentary is also therapeutic. While I don't think the film is as strong as it could be and that all of the script choices carry the intended impact (when Dietz notes that a line like "He likes carrots!" means "everything", I didn't quite see it), I still appreciate the heart and soul he put into the project. "Sometimes it's hard to watch a personal story unfold, and this movie is intensely personal to me...it's like an emotional autobiography."