Published June 1, 1998
Lawn Dogs directed by John Duigan from a screenplay by Naomi Wallace is the worst movie I have seen since Fried Green Tomatoes. It touches reality at no point. Next to this piece of cinematic offal, Godzilla or Deep Impact look like kitchen sink realism. I don’t mind the mindlessness of such popcorn movies. They are usually good for a laugh or two, at least, and they tell us a lot about the mind of Hollywood, so influential in the forming of America’s youthful consciousness. But I really resent the time I have to spend watching pretentious rubbish like Lawn Dogs. It is a movie with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It reminds me of socialist realist art from the Stalinist era: relentless in its pitching of a “progressive” message, towards the furtherance of which everything tends. It is rigged in every way, and has nothing real to tell us about save for the emptiness of Naomi Wallace’s head.
The expertly odious Christopher McDonald plays the greedy and ambitious father and the usually sympathetic Kathleen Quinlan plays the sluttish mother of a dreadful little ten-year old brat called Devon Stocker, played by Mischa Barton. Devon strikes up a friendship with Trent (Sam Rockwell), a poor white trash type despised and looked down upon by all the residents of the wealthy subdivision, Camelot Gardens, whose lawns he mows. Yet, what do you think? Beneath that unpolished exterior there beats a sensitive heart. Devon, a natural traitor to her class, sees at once that poor but honest Trent is superior to people like her bourgeois daddy, who believes that “If poor people worked hard, they could be rich like him.”
Not too surprisingly, Trent holds a different view. “The way I see it, you got people who own lawns and people who mow them—and they’re never the same people.” Actually, this is a perfect illustration of the fact that if Naomi Wallace or John Duigan have ever lived among real American people they have done so with their eyes firmly shut. In most of the country the people who own lawns and the people who mow them are almost always the same people, but in this marxisant fantasy world there is nothing in between the obscene and offensive rich people and the dirt poor. “First our lawns and then our women,” say the rich boys of Camelot Gardens, envious of Trent’s manly grace. So they conspire to ruin him out of sheer spitefulness, as rich people often do to such poor strivers.
Ruining him is a ridiculously easy thing to do, too, since all the poor fellow has is his mowing equipment. He lives in a filthy trailer parked up in the woods and sends all the money he earns to his equally poor but honest parents, since his father is disabled—as it might be by tobacco or mining companies but in fact by the federal government, who gave him some bad cheese when he was a soldier in Korea—and his nugatory pension is paid by yet another lot of rich “bastards.” More seriously, Trent’s friendship with Devon is easily misconstrued as pedophilia (“People don’t just give away turtles,” says mom suspiciously when Devon brings home a tortoise spared by Trent’s mower), which gives the main lot of rich bastards an excuse to go after him with a stick.
In typical artsy-fartsy fashion, the film makes frequent references to the folk tale of Babi Yaga, the witch with iron teeth who is supposed to devour children. Devon, being a postmodern sort of girl, instinctively knows that Babi Yaga, with whom she is quick to identify the forest-dwelling Trent, is really a sweetheart and not at all a paedophage. There is no fear of the other here. On the contrary, the iron teeth (Trent cuts his finger while oiling his chainsaw and Devon sucks the wound clean) are only used for noble purposes, while the real enemies of childhood innocence and tranquility are mommy and daddy and all the neighbors who pretend to be looking after her. The final scenes, in which little Dev ends up protecting Babi Yaga against her own father at gunpoint—followed by a bit of what is apparently meant to be “magic realism”—are just too absurd for words