Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
“Don’t pet a burning dog.” These words of caution, referring to such an activity's futility and the likelihood that you will also get burned, echo throughout filmmaker Trey Batchelor’s chaotic debut feature.
Told in the style of a first-person-shooter video game, “Burning Dog” is about a game designer named Five (voiced by Adam Bartley), who is kidnapped by crooked cops, Smythe (Greg Grunberg) and Wesson (Salvator Xuereb). Five is handcuffed, manhandled, and dragged from place-to-place, as Smythe and Wesson search for evidence to clear their names. On top of that, if Five doesn’t come up with a new game concept by the end of the day, he’ll lose his job.
Against his will, Five has to run from contract killers, Russian mobsters, and other compromised law enforcement officers. But in this video-game-like reality, the players don’t get a second life.
“Burning Dog” is reminiscent of Ilya Naishuller’s innovative 2015 film “Hardcore Henry,” a minor box office success due in part to the tiny budget. And that point of view experiment leaned heavily into its video game influences. Henry was resurrected and did battle with a telekinetic warlord. The high-energy approach divided viewers who were either captivated by the reverse Snorricam visual style or found the whole thing nauseating.
The good news is that “Burning Dog” isn’t as hyperkinetic as “Henry.” As promised in the film’s synopsis, there is more emphasis on the enigmatic story than the POV thrills. Still, the visual approach trumps the narrative, which is fun, if also secondary.
Cinematographer Dino Parks (“Visioneers,” “Lone Survivor”) shoots “Burning Dog” flatly given the continuous movement. The necessary deep depth of field keeps most of the image in focus while Five rarely stops moving. The camera is the character, and the operators had to give the lens a distinct personality. I think they succeed, but this filmmaking style is still an experiment, as the technique is perfected. Parks and his team do well to take advantage of the frantic elements while steadying things to guard against the nauseating effects.
There’s no denying that there is something un-cinematic about having character stare directly into the camera. However, dramatically, this can work as we saw last year in one fantastic scene in Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” But it has to be more than a gimmick. There must be a narrative purpose. An excellent example of the use of direct POV is several sequences in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film “Strange Days.” In that movie, Bigelow took us inside the experiences of critical characters—we "jack" into their minds.
In “Burning Dog,” for almost the entire film, we’re spoken to as if we are in the movie. The POV does have its moments, especially during the raucous action-packed conclusion. And it helps that the performances are uniformly in on the joke. Batchelor, who also wrote the script, has populated his movie with a constant stream of clichés and stereotypes. It’s all intentional, which points up the obvious limitation to this style of filmmaking. Despite valiant efforts by everyone involved, “Burning Dog” is still a triumph of style over substance.
Batchelor smartly makes Five, his protagonist, a video game designer. And Five’s dangerous journey should give him great grist for a new game. Beyond this kind of narrative use, the first-person-shooter camera POV might be hard to apply to other stories. Making the camera a character is tricky, and Batchelor gets away with it, while also winking at the viewer.
“Burning Dog” is an entertaining chapter in the on-going evolution of the POV filmmaking experiment.