What’s in a name? When you go searching through cinema listings, Netflix catalogues, or supermarket shelves for a film to watch, how much does its name help influence your decision to see or skip? Likely more than you think it does.
After all, names can not only grab the attention if they are particularly unique or read/sound well, they also set certain expectations in the viewer. For example, Overdrive not only sounds like it promises car-based thrills, it also sets expectations for something passable and competent but ultimately disposable based solely on its generic title stolen from a fake movie in Stuntman: Ignition. As another example: I tell you that the title of a film is Megan Leavey, you’re probably expecting some kind of serious personal drama, likely based on a true story and almost definitely of the eventually-uplifting variety, and perhaps even somewhat prestige-y given how Megan Leavey is obviously a real name (as opposed to something like John Wick).
I bring this up because Megan Leavey was the original title for Rex; Lionsgate have changed it for its UK release. In a way, it makes a certain kind of sense. If you’re on the less cynical end of the spectrum, you can note that those of us in Britain have little reason to recognise the name Megan Leavey or have much interest in yet another American war drama, so why not instead title it after her faithful companion and also draw in the dog-loving crowd? And if you’re on the cynical end of things, such as myself, then the name Rex not only capitalises on another recent dog-soldier drama – Max, which inexplicably got a direct-to-video sequel last year where he goes to The White House – but it also sets expectations so far through the floor, that the film itself displaying even basic competency could lead to it being regarded as a pleasant surprise. Buy a movie that looks to be about war dogs, get a film about a woman overcoming survivor’s guilt and finding a purpose and soulmate in life.
In reality, neither title adequately fits the film in question, but Rex really does both under and mis-sell the film it’s attached to. Rex is an important part of the story of Corporal Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), yes, but the film is predominately about the woman whose name was formerly shared by the film. In a surprisingly expedient opening stretch, we learn that she was a directionless addict with an unsupportive or distant family (Edie Falco and Bradley Whitford respectively), fired from even the most dead-end of dead-end jobs as a result of her demons, and taking the recent death of her best friend incredibly poorly, before signing up for the Marine Corps. Shortly into her term, she’s busted for lewd conduct and assigned to clean the K9 cages, whereupon she finds herself drawn to the aggressively hostile Rex. Megan puts in the work required to impress the unit’s head, Gunnery Sergeant Massey (Common), and eventually ends up paired with Rex for her tour of Iraq where they bond, save lives, and get caught in the middle of life-threatening scenarios.
Rex is a film about Megan attempting to cope with survivor’s guilt, essentially. As she later expands upon to charming potential love interest and fellow dog handler Corporal Matt Morales (Ramón Rodriguez), her best friend died as a result of a drug binge that the pair of them had gone on, and Megan not only feels responsible but is also perplexed by how she’s the one still breathing when she was actually taking more than they were. She states in her opening narration that she volunteered because there was nothing at home for her anymore and she needed to escape, but it tellingly takes until Megan is drawn to Rex and the K9 unit for her to have a tangible purpose in the Marines, a desire to legitimately improve herself and to help others.
Said bond between Megan and Rex goes as you’d expect, but I will admit to having been moved by it on both a base level – as an extremely sentimental German Shepherd owner myself, I am the easiest mark in the entire world for dog bonding stories – and since it ends up feeding into Megan’s struggle with PTSD and survivor’s guilt. The film’s second half follows the fateful ambush where she and Rex are both injured, and Megan’s attempts to get Rex discharged and brought home to her in spite of a service that will simply send him back out into the field regardless of his mental state until his “retirement” comes. There’s an undercurrent of anger and parallels to the American military’s continued disinterest in supporting those men and women who return home after fighting overseas irrevocably changed, but it’s also not a well that the film is intent on fully capitalising on, since doing so would involve having to confront viewers with hard questions about the American military that would only discomfort them, which is the farthest thing from Rex’s intentions.
If there was any reason to change the name from Megan Leavey, then it’s undoubtedly that. As directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (of 2013’s crossover documentary Blackfish), Rex is intentionally light, comforting fare that plays so hard to the cheap seats that it even scores its end credit title card epilogue to an Eddie Vedder song. Despite running just shy of two hours, the film still feels like it’s missing several crucial scenes of connective tissue in order to let things breathe and for the drama to fully work. In particular, one character gets a decent amount of screen time only to unceremoniously be killed off-screen with no build-up in between two scenes that dramatically and tonally have nothing in common with this reveal. There are minimal sequences of actual danger, although the ones that do appear at least display a solid grasp of tension and paranoia, even if Cowperthwaite overdoes it on the dramatic slo-mo. The screenplay – courtesy of Annie Mumolo, Pamela Gray, and Tim Lovestedt – hits every beat expected of it and little more. It’s a film that’s perfectly serviceable to watch, but deliberately designed to be wholly forgettable afterwards.
That’s where Kate Mara comes in. Kate Mara, along with her sister Rooney, is a talented actress who has long been stuck in a string of absolute garbage that is utterly beneath her – hence my campaign, #savethemaras; get it trending before I have to watch Garth Davis direct Mary Magdalene, please God – and whilst the film surrounding her is nothing particularly special, Rex does give her plenty of chances to forcibly remind viewers that, oh yeah, Kate Mara is a pretty good actress when she’s given a role to play. A lot of the second half consists of her having to get terse into telephones, but her every outburst feels decidedly underplayed and natural, the result of the weight of her experiences crushing down upon her in the face of a largely-uncaring institution mostly concerned with covering its own ass. She’s surrounded by a largely quality supporting cast bringing pleasant charisma and likeability to roles of varying degrees of underwritten, but the film is predominately hers and she shoulders the weight with confidence and skill, even managing to make banter about New York Yankees/Mets allegiances kind of work.
Which brings us back to that name: Rex. Even if the story isn’t Rex’s, maybe it is the most fitting name for the film, upon reflection. It’s not a name that sticks out upon first sight – hundreds of thousands of owners name their dogs Rex or some variation of Rex every year, I imagine – it’s not one that reinvents the wheel of dog names, and it deliberately rolls off the tongue easily and is recognisable for the dog when it is called. But it is a solid, dependable name and the name doesn’t make the dog any less pleasant to be around, with the capacity to surprise if one’s expectations are cynically low for whatever reason.
That metaphor really broke down towards the end, there, but hopefully you got the point I was attempting to make. Rex is not a great movie, and it is almost preternaturally determined to stay resolutely in its comforting zone, but it is a solidly entertaining one that is worth checking out with a quietly strong lead performance from Mara at its centre.
Rex will be available in the UK to download on 12th March and to buy on DVD from 19th March.