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Ebiri on Dom Hemingway: Rarely Have an Actor and a Role Been So Perfect for Each Other

“Is my cock exquisite?” Jude Law’s Dom Hemingway asks us, point blank, in the opening scene of Richard Shepard’s film. It’s part of a florid, magisterial prison monologue he delivers to us — or, more accurate, at us — all about the virtues of his cock (“A painting of my cock should hang in the Louvre”) and, by extension, himself. So maybe it means something that we never actually see said cock. Dom Hemingway is a stylized journey into the world of a man whose bluster never quite matches his reality. But he’s a criminal — a safecracker, to be exact — and in this world, bluster can count for a lot.

Part Travis Bickle, part dimestore Shakespeare (“Listen up, you owls and bears! You cocksuckers, plebeians, and moral cowards! You foxes, lions, and pedophiles!”), Dom’s language exceeds his grasp. Released from prison, his first order of business is to find the man who married his late wife and to pulverize him. His second order of business is to go to the pub and lament what he just did. (“I got anger issues,” he whines to his longtime friend and partner Dickie, played with loyal, touching reserve by Richard E. Grant.) When a grateful former employer sends Dom two prostitutes to welcome him back to the free world, Dom proudly announces that he’s disappearing for three days into a coke- and sex-fueled binge. Afterwards, he once again comes back remorseful. (“I did too much, Dickie. I made up for too much lost time. I fucked myself to death.”)

And so it goes with Dom Hemingway, and with Dom Hemingway. Shepard’s style here is to give us bursts of music and color and emotion, punctuated with moments of exquisite, dreamlike imagery, and then to pull back — a cinematic corollary to Dom’s seesawing world of cock-of-the-walk anger and Sunday morning regret. Dom’s self-destructive ways begin to get even more troublesome when he and Dickie head to France, to meet with Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bichir), the crime lord whom Dom refused to rat out to the authorities, and to get the money that’s owed them; Dom may be a loyal soldier, but he’s also a mouthy soldier: When he starts to make fun of Mr. Fontaine’s full Russian name (“Is Ivan short for Ivana?” “Anatoly? Anal-tolly?”), we know things aren’t going to end well.

It’d be giving away too much to say what happens after the meeting with Mr. Fontaine, but suffice it to say that our hero’s spiraling remorse eventually starts to get the better of him. And yes, an estranged daughter is involved, as it ever must be in films about ex-cons; if you mapped out Dom Hemingway’s plot on a piece of paper, it’d probably look hopelessly cliché. And yes, we do eventually see Dom’s safe-cracking expertise, in a wondrous late set piece where the baroque theatricality of Law’s performance — equal parts lewd physicality and grandiose verbal flourishes — really shines. If at times, Dom Hemingway reminds you of Jonathan Glazer’s superior Sexy Beast, that’s because it’s probably meant to. Both films were produced by the great Jeremy Thomas, and one can see this new film hitting a lot of the same Brits-behaving-badly notes as that earlier one.

Dom Hemingway is an uneven movie, to be sure — plot holes abound, and some of the aforementioned clichés can be distracting — but it’s still hard to resist. Because rarely have an actor and a part been so perfect for each other, and Shepard lets his lead run wild with this offbeat, contradictory character. It’s a chance for Law to display not just his range but his comfort with extremes. This is an actor who is at his best either when wallowing in entitlement or expressing vulnerability. Prior to this, his greatest performance was his supporting part in Gattaca, where he played a rich jerk in a wheelchair. Now, playing a poor lost jerk with a chip on his shoulder and a past full of mistakes, he’s found the role of a lifetime.

Photo: Fox Searchlight