The “black dog” is a universal metaphor for mental illness—usually depression—that’s been picked up by everyone from Winston Churchill to Arlo Parks. In fact, the inventor of the English Dictionary itself, Samuel Johnson, first coined the phrase in 1776. Being a master of words, Johnson found a way to relay his clinical diagnosis as something tangible: the feeling of an ominous presence lingering in the shadows, following your every move. This is a theme carried through Black Dog, screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival this year.
George Jaques’s indie drama, courtesy of Independent Entertainment, uses familiar tropes to tell a familiar story without once feeling worn out. Jaques and co-writer Jamie Flatters—who also stars in the film—were informed by their own childhoods when penning the script, and the intimacy of it is palpable. Immediately, it’s obvious that Black Dog is a very personal movie, giving it the sort of empathy and originality that prevents Black Dog from feeling like just another road movie, another pair of polar opposite characters that become unlikely friends.
Jaques and Flatters spoke about how their own friendship arose from different sides of society—a public-meets-private-school kid during their teenage years when the social hierarchy is most sharply divided. Although the protagonists in Black Dog (Sam, played by Keenan Munn-Francis in his debut role; and Nathan, played by Flatters) come from the same school, they live in vastly different worlds, tethered only by the schoolyard, a chance encounter and the need to get up North.
The pair’s high school days are a few years behind them by the time we meet them, so getting a lift with the “posh kid” doesn’t matter so much anymore. In fact, Nathan turns eighteen within the three-day period Black Dog unfolds in, meaning he’s cut loose from his foster home and left to fend for himself. Technically, Nathan runs away before his official leaving date, explaining that he wished to go on his own accord rather than be unwanted while swigging straight, own-brand vodka on a park bench.
Nathan is perfectly happy with this humble celebration; however, as it’s implied, he had a turbulent upbringing—experiences that make Nathan older than a number—and all he really wants is the wide-open spaces. Skies, trees, fields. “Beautiful, innit?” Nathan remarks, having never reached past the cramped alleys of Camden Town. He could never afford to leave London before…“that’s the trap.”
Whereas Sam lives in the “posh” part of London with his seemingly depressed father, Nathan grew up in a group home. He gets cash in hand from the garage he works at, smokes weed with his friend on rooftops, has a sticky hand for kleptomania, and never seems to care about being on time. Naturally, this makes him always running late—or just running in general—and after being chased by a policewoman, Nathan gets involved in a fight with a mugger, beating up a young man.
This scene where Sam and Nathan first meet (having only known of each other in school) tells you most of what you need to know about the two characters. Despite his chirpy demeanor, Nathan knows how to fight and gets carried away with the punches from some internal fury. He has a conflicted moral compass, drawn down an alley to save a stranger but then nicking Sam’s wallet himself. Sam, meanwhile, is frightened, shy, and bad at sticking up for himself. He wears a nice, clean suit to his nice, clean house and pretends not to notice Nathan stealing his cash.
Unbeknownst to them, Sam and Nathan are united by the black dogs haunting them—ones they try to keep hidden away. In fact, both of their lives are built on performance: Nathan boasts about “shagging all night” when, in reality, he flinched at his girlfriend’s touch. He lies about visiting his sister for a birthday surprise, just as Sam lies about going up North to see his mum and hides a secret stash of pills in his bag. Whereas Nathan is all talk, Sam is silent. Terrified of being found out or, on a more superficial level, saying the wrong thing to the ex-popular kid.
In the most overt sense, Nathan is messy, reckless, and carefree, mocking Sam’s privileged life and inability to have fun. On the other hand, Sam is serious, secretive, and kind, always driving under the speed limit. Essentially, Nathan needs to wind down, and Sam needs to loosen up. Whereas Sam lives almost exclusively in his head—in the corners of which his black dog lurks—Nathan lives in the real world. The real, harsh world. A place where he always ends up blood-stained from doing what needs to be done (fighting off muggers, putting a dying dog out of its misery) and where his own black dog lies, not internally but externally.
For all his criminal bravado, Nathan has a good heart and an intelligent mind. Sam’s well-provided life is not as pristine as it seems, and the two are forced to face the demons (or dogs) they’re running from. Cramped in a single car for six hours, the pair argue, laugh, steal, drink, and talk their way to catharsis. They make each other open up about the things they can’t tell anyone else, listening from a deep, newly discovered understanding that their closet skeletons share similar faces. They just wear their grief differently.
Jaques drip feeds us this information, revealing both of the characters piece by piece, letting us put the puzzle together ourselves. Intrigued to learn more. Implication and open ends replace exposition and neat ties, making for a keenly developed character study that’s never heavy-handed or cliché. It’s coarsely honest yet tender—a buddy movie studded with moments of humor and sadness in equal measure. Everything is a slow build-up to an inevitable break that’s necessary for Sam and Nathan to move on with their lives, get out of the trap, and bury the dog for good.