Mixing tried-and-true film noir ingredients with a palpable atmosphere of dread and desolation, director Clay Eide proves there’s some life left in the old recipe yet. They’re all here: the former ne’er-do-well, trying to live on the straight and narrow; his no-good brother who blows back into town to stir up trouble; the femme fatale who comes between them; and, of course, the heist gone awry. What distinguishes “Dead Dogs” from the rest of the pack is its deadpan humor, convincing performances, and ability to transform its low-budget liabilities into gritty, claustrophobic realism.
Joe Reynolds is Tom, the night security guard at the Driftwood Inn, a sleepy midwestern motel. Tom whiles away the long evenings playing chess with the effete, overeducated desk clerk and occasionally sneaking off to an empty room with Diane, the maid. All that changes when his brother Derek (Jay Underwood) returns from a life on the road holding up roadside convenience stores. Derek’s girlfriend Carmen – who happens to be Tom’s ex — is along for the ride as well. Right away Derek sets about luring Tom back to the dark side. His master plan: rob the Driftwood Inn over the lucrative Fourth of July weekend. Tom is reluctant, but eventually agrees to go along, mostly because he still cannot resist Carmen’s charms. Naturally, everything goes exactly according to plan.
Okay, just wanted to see if you were paying attention. After all, this wouldn’t be noir if things didn’t spin dangerously out of control. But the quirky details and wry dialogue of “Dead Dogs” make up for the rather standard plot elements. Joe’s bet with the desk clerk that he can eat nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches for a week becomes a running subplot, and Derek’s casual, folksy approach to small-time robbery in one of the opening scenes sets a low-key tone that makes later events all the more unsettling. Eide brings a genuine sense of bleakness to the setting – from the motel to Joe’s apartment to the early morning bar where the characters first hatch their scheme. The realism extends to the actors’ performances; they’re all modest, unflashy portrayals of ground-level desperation – not a wild-eyed, gun-waving psycho in the bunch. For some, “Dead Dogs” may be too simple and laid-back – no attention-grabbing camera tricks, no over-the-top action sequences. Just a straightforward, unpretentious story, and if it’s one that’s been told a time or two before, at least it’s one that’s told well.