Zen Dog

I like to dive into reviewing films blind. Having information about the film or filmmaker beforehand can sometimes bias me. Shouldn’t a film should just stand on its own free of baggage (OK, I know I’m a little anal about this)?

So let’s talk about Rick Darge’s Zen Dogs. I’m just not sure ultimately what the Darge was trying to accomplish. There are several ideas and themes I picked up that do not flow well together. Let’s talk story first.

Mud, (Kyle Gallner) works at VR start-up company Virtual Tranquality. He’s not very excited about the company or his job, but it offers the financial security. His feelings of malaise come across in a very weak investor pitch for his VR vacation application. Users can visit exotic destinations without leaving home. Like the fake vacation spent in isolation, Mud has no connections in his real life.

“…Dwayne’s special psychedelic tea…sends Mud on a trip…on a literal road trip across the United States…”

As chance would have it, Mud’s cousin Dwayne (Adam Herschman) takes it upon himself to visit Mud and stay with him, while he’s on break from college. Dwayne is a never-ending stream of consciousness and you guess it, a pothead. He sees Mud’s unhappiness and spends much of the first act trying to get him to live a little, see the world, better yet go outside.

Foiled at every turn, there’s only one solution to Mud’s problem—Dwayne’s special psychedelic tea (that he bought in Chinatown). One cup sends Mud on a trip…on a literal road trip across the United States in a psychedelic Volkswagen Bug. Along the way, he meets colorful characters, lives life and learns a little something about himself. His hallucinations include philosophic voice over from 60’s eastern philosopher Alan Watts narrating Mud’s trip using Watt’s early recording.

“…trips are shot beautifully, experimentally, and with a great deal of intentions…”

A lot of plot, ideas, and concepts are thrown at you throughout Zen Dogs: Mud’s unhappiness, inability to connect with others, agoraphobia, addiction to psychedelic tea. The film documents Mud’s journey to live life to its fullest…through drugs…while ignoring his cousin, who initially introduced him to the tea in the first place. Are drugs the best way to gain confidence? Isn’t it better to develop relationships with real people, instead of drug-induced ones? The themes in Zen Dogs are constantly at odds with each other and not a one comes out as the winner.

The best thing about Zen Dogs is its visuals during Mud’s mind trips. The trips are shot beautifully, experimentally, and with a great deal of intentions…which is what the story needed as well. The Watt’s voice-overs work well during these moments. With all the conflicting themes I wonder if Darge made Zen Dogs just for these moments. Did he create beautifully compelling visual images and string them together with an unfocused narrative? I wish it was enough to recommend this film.

Zen Dog (2018) Written and directed by Rick Darge. Starring Kyle Gallner, Adam Herschman, Celia Diane, and Clea DuVall.

4 out of 10 stars

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