The Best Movie You Never Saw: Dom Hemingway

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week, we’ll be looking at F*@#!%& DOM HEMINGWAY.

THE STORY: Twelve years ago, Dom Hemingway took the fall for his criminal boss. Now he's out of the clink and raging through the streets, dead-set on collecting his due. But the world isn't ready to welcome him with open arms, and before the story's end he'll find himself in danger not just of losing his money, his life, or his best friend, but the family that he left behind.


Writer/director Richard Shepard. Actors Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Emilia Clarke, and Demian Bichir.

Also, I'd like to give a hand to the muttonchops.

I really enjoyed writing Dom – I mean, the whole movie is him and it’s an explosion. This guy is a man who shoots off his mouth and then shoots himself in the foot at the same time. He was a great time. I mean, I just enjoyed his company. I ended up writing almost another movie as I was writing this movie, like a separate story involving Dom that was just as enjoyable. He’s a character I could just keep writing in some way because he doesn’t censor himself and has a poeticism about him in his sort of way of speaking that that’s sort of writer porn. I mean, it was just sort of totally fun. Then of course, ultimately, because as you said, the movie is so about him, it’s if the wrong actor played him then it’d be a total disaster, so I was incredibly lucky that I had an actor who sort of was ready to jump into something like that. - Richard Shepard


There’s really not a lot of drama behind the scenes here. Richard Shepard –  writer/director of another excellent entry for this column titled THE MATADOR – wanted to make a movie set in London.  Preferably one which explored “how do you make a character who is larger than life but still grounded?”

And larger than life Dom Hemingway was, is, and will be. Larger than real life, literary life, and that cinematic life lived by so many of his fictional UK gangster brethren.  Law gained nearly 30 pounds specifically for the role in his pursuit of a size that would force his suit to “pinch in all the wrong places,” and the movie saw release in autumn 2013. It came and it went, grossing a little over $500,000 domestically in its four or so weeks of release. But for those who managed to catch it in time, Dom roared our doors down with his veracity and his voracity, his linguistic invention and his wild philosophies, his motley friends and his piss-burnt broken heart. Or maybe… maybe it’s because, beneath all that, we could see the spirit of a human being buried somewhere deep beneath the skin just struggling to survive.


Originally I had designed a whole sneaky sort of throughline connecting these column entries. As with most plans, the gods laughed and tossed the idea out the window of possibility. And yet, here we are with two very different films that share a curious kind of connectivity. You'll noticed I mentioned "veracity" in the above paragraph - that word is there because if Dom Hemingway speaks anything, it's the truth (except when he's lying to himself).

It was flattering on the one hand to have someone who I've never met before and not from England, think about me for a part and then actually come through on his offer is something I didn't expect… I usually get cast, because my first role in "Withnail and I" 27 years ago was so extreme and manic that to play the sort of straight fall guy to Dom Hemingway, who is so out there and so extreme, was very attractive and also the fact that they come from completely opposite ends of the social spectrum I thought it was a great chance to do a dead pan double act if you like. I had met Jude socially but had never worked with him but admired him and we got along very well right from the beginning, which I think is crucial when you have an oddball buddy movie like this is in some sense. You've got to believe that these people like or get on or have some history together so that was extremely enjoyable to do. - Richard E. Grant

This is a story of a man rocketing through his midlife crisis like a flaming cannonball, someone who dreams of swimming in champagne only to awake and discover he’s drowning in the North Sea. A dinosaur by his own admission (Dom the T-Rex – watch the movie and think about it), he emerges ill-equipped after twelve years in a cell to encounter a new world or face himself. And thus, after his first celebratory days back on the outside, now that he has thawed from the long dark cryosleep of the soul and returned to blood-filled life, he finds himself in a different story.  A more difficult story, and a deeply, achingly human story. And that’s a story of causes and consequences, of the dragon of responsibility and the lion of true courage. 

There are always costs – societally and personally – to honesty. Dom is a fellow who speaks what’s on his mind and doesn’t mind if you disagree. He probably prefers it, because his ego is fueled by the emotionally vibrant sparks of human conflict. Ego in the sense of his identity, the character that he played on life’s stage, the defining qualities of Dom Hemingway. Ego most likely kept him alive in his early life, giving him what he believed to be courage, its scrappy power and its clever fight always getting him both in and out of scrapes. But with feeding that ego grew, and with twelve years of imagination, and dreams and desires and secret, desperate regrets that ego grew into something nigh-on mythical. Which means, when that ego is faced with the world and all the consequences for all his choices, Dom is forced to face a question: what happens when that swollen, balls-out ego blurs past the bluster and finally finds its bursting point?

He’s lived one way for so long – the way of a criminal, the way of someone putting on an act and practicing deception constantly – Dom finds himself bedeviled and bewitched into thinking that he’s just being him. He’s just being honest.  But as consequences to actions both recent and ancient pile on, his ego begins to rage Lear-like in the storm against its own death, unable to let in or even consider a human being other than himself. That would be too dangerous and too damaging. Dom’s having an increasing series of crises – of purpose, of place, of home, of family, of loyalty, of identity, even of existence. He takes them all in the same dosage he does his drink: by downing the whole bottle and/or breaking it over someone’s face. Like his friend, like his boss, like so many of his associates, he has devoted his life to something and that something isn’t working out. Unlike them, he’s driven to shout loudly about it until the situation gets sorted out. Because he’s Dom Hemingway.

 My movies are so talky, and while I think a lot happens, there's not a lot of action. So part of what I wanted to do was try and make the movie as visual as possible, shoot it in wide screen, have bold colors and try to make the images as interesting and funny as I can to keep the audience interested. For the monkey-room scene, I desperately wanted something on the walls in that room because they were just white walls and I was worried for a nine-page scene, and I also wanted there to be some art that was going to confuse Dom a little. At some point in pre-production, (the production designer) came in with those Jill Greenberg photographs. ... Once we saw them, we couldn't believe it. It was one of those kismet moments. - Richard Shepard

Meaning what we have here is that classic storytelling case of a very human stuation seen through an overtly fictionalized lens, one which allows us to see a thing and talk about it for exactly what it is. Rod Serling did it with The Twilight Zone, Guillermo del Toro does it with fantasy and horror, and Richard Shepard has done it here with a gangster flick. Hell, Dom's criminal skills are centered around cracking open safes. As in, finding out the truths and secrets kept safe by others. Yet by the end, after making a few dubious decisions and quite a few very bad ones, Dom learns in that equally classic way that the trickiest safe to crack of them all will be his own. So to speak. Which is an equally classic set-up and journey, but one which is told here with such crass, colorful, poetic vibrancy that it still manages to shock, entertain, and surprise in equal measure. 

But that very sorting out, that figurative act of stripping himself bare and raging in the storm until it passes and he sees the first rays of sun again, that couldn’t be sold without the skill energy, and talent of Jude Law. And after a career that has ranged from suave charmers to sociopathic villains to dry doctors to Hamlet himself, Law puts his time with this role best: “it was a wonderful cathartic purge, you know? And there's something great about going, there were nuances and tones to him, cause he's a deep and complicated and layered kind of human, as we all are, as you start picking him. But there's a wonderful kind of release. He's got a front, and it's protecting vulnerability. There's a wonderful kind of swagger that is incredibly fun to step in to. That rubs off on you, you know? And when you walk around in an electric blue suit and Cuban heel boots, you can't help but walk around with a bit of attitude.”

I think that Dom thinks he looks like a rock 'n'roll star. Dom thinks he's the Elvis of gangsters, and what you realise is that he is, in fact, a petty crook and shambolic. Yet that whole presentation - the winkle-picker boots, the ill-fitting suit that once upon a time was glorious on him, that looks like it just needs to be changed - the balls he has to try to pull that kind of stuff off says an awful lot about him. And yet, because he gives it a go, there's something still quite cool about him - that was our aim…. I've never been a great believer in relying on looks to get you through. To me it's all about the work, and what you do in the workplace. And if a part like this that demands that kind of grotesqueness, if you like, comes along then why not embrace it with two hands and relish it? - Jude Law

Except, even with his powerhouse performance as the character whose name defines the movie, Dom Hemingway as played by Jude Law wouldn’t get very far without his friends, enemies, and family. They all define him in their own way, just as he helps define them. Richard E. Grant comes very close very often to stealing all his scenes, making sure to temper the character just enough that he and Dom can play off each other and fit together like two misshapen peas in a twisted pod. Emilia Clarke plays a well known character type with enough simplicity and honesty to make the role her own, effusing a subtle sort of confidence and strength that I wish we’d see more of in her on Game of Thrones. Demian Bichir makes the absolute most of his somewhat truncated time, convincing playing the two faces of a cruel criminal boss with absolute conviction. And a special shout-out must be made to Jordan A. Nash as Dom’s grandson Jawara, the lightning rod of light and kindness that gives Dom the strength to step back from the brink and return to reality.

Dom may be "English for ‘unlucky son of a bitch," but we're lucky to have this outrageous story about a legendary man who goes on a journey beyond the kind normally seen: more than merely take those first steps down a path towards change and redemption - more importantly than that - it's a story of a man who is a fictionalized fantasy of himself who, for all the glaring blinding of all his perceived glories, sees the need to take that journey at all. Because truth and consequences are not just a town in New Mexico, Jude Law is Dom Hemingway, and Dom Hemingway is the raging beast that burns even in the best of us, hoping against hope that there's still a way home.


Note: this clip of the scene that opens the movie is NSFW. Seriously.

 Well, I wrote that whole opening sequence in one shot, like just in an afternoon. My girlfriend’s a writer, and I just joined her at a hotel lobby where she was writing. I just took out the computer. I’d been having a little trouble getting going on the movie. I wasn’t quite sure what I was trying to say. I just sort of started writing that scene. By the time I was done, I was like, “Oh, I’ve got the whole movie now.” It solved the entire movie by writing that opening sequence, and I totally know who this guy is. - Richard Shepard 




A note: before you watch this movie, be prepared. Because Dom Hemingway may just want to make up for lost time.

Extra Tidbit: "We showed the film to a packed out audience at the Toronto Film Festival last month, and somebody stood up at the end of the Q&A and said: 'What happens to Dom and Dickie? There has to be a sequel.' Richard Shepard [the director] stood straight up and said: ‘Yeah – Dom and Dickie do Vegas!’" - Richard E. Grant
Source: JoBlo.com



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