Early last year, I had Dom Hemingway on my list of most anticipated movies of the first half of 2014. Its inclusion on this most hallowed of lists was based entirely on Jude Law’s explosive viciousness as the titular character. I wrote, “I’m fairly certain that I could watch this Dom Hemingway character do pretty much anything. Dom cooks breakfast? I’m there. Dom teaches geography? Sign me up.” As it turns out, once you stretch the character out over 90 minutes, watching Jude Law spew coarse language and vitriol quickly stops being a guilty pleasure and, instead, becomes a sad story about a man whose notions of good intentions render him incapable of becoming anything other than a crass thug.
The film opens on Dom’s voice, loudly extolling the magnificence of his genitals. Once the scene’s visuals cut in, we see a naked Dom, standing with arms asplay, continuing to proclaim the virtues of his cock while he is receiving fellatio from a fellow inmate. For two and a half minutes, Dom talks himself to orgasm through a series of absurd and creative metaphors about his, and his penis’, greatness. Nearly immediately, his skills with the English language are exposed as a means by which to prop up the importance of his own legend.
Dom is a man who is painfully aware of his reputation. He is surprised when people haven’t heard of the famous Dom Hemingway. It’s crucial to Dom’s sense of identity that he be renowned for his skills as a safe-cracker, for the spectacularity of his manhood, for his unwavering silence during his prison sentence but mostly just for being “Dom Hemingway.” Instead of considering his actions based on their results or how they affect him and the people around him, he makes his decisions based on how it will all look. It’s a crucial distinction when we see how much Dom’s life suffers for his reputation.
For starters, Dom is in prison because he has refused to take a deal and turn on his fellow criminals. He takes pride in being seen as someone who can be counted on for having, if not discretion, then at least honour among thieves. This reputation comes at a cost. We learn that Dom had a wife at home all those 12 years ago when he first went away to jail. She begged him to testify for the sake of a reduced sentence, a plea that he ignored, forsaking her and their young daughter, Evelyn. In choosing to perpetuate the character of “Dom Hemingway,” Dom spends an extra nine years locked away, during which time his wife remarries, gets cancer, and dies. Meanwhile, Evelyn is raised by another man and, when approached as an adult by a now-released Dom, wants less than nothing to do with him.
Once Dom gets out of prison, his first act as a free man is to find his ex-wife’s husband (Sandy) so that he can beat him within an inch of his life. Dom thrives on the public viciousness he inflicts on his victim, headbutting, beating and kicking the man in the groin before biting him in the face. Granted, Dom must feel an incredible amount of jealousy toward this man. A decade is a long time to nurse that kind of resentment. But it’s important to note that when Dom really flies off the handle is when he shouts “You think you can steal from me!? From me, from Dom Hemingway!?” Sandy’s crime wasn’t marrying Dom’s wife nor raising his daughter. What Sandy did was to compromise the reputation of “Dom Hemingway,” a crime which required violence as retaliation in order to keep the character alive.
On a few rare occasions, we are privy to Dom’s sorrow at his self-inflicted solitude. When he visits his ex-wife’s grave, he is alone with his grief. Gone are the posturing, the shouting, and the elaborate similes. Instead, we see a broken man, honestly grieving the people in his life who have actually mattered. Without an audience, Dom has no reason to summon “Dom,” and instead has to face, not only that the love of his life is gone, but that his constructed personality and reputation are the very source of his suffering. He makes a vow to his wife’s grave to win Evelyn back, to show her so much kindness and decency that she will have no choice but to accept him back. Tragically, Dom is so well-versed at putting his reputation first that, even now, at his most vulnerable and honest, he cannot help but to re-don the personality. “She’ll resist my charms for only so long,” he says, with a rehardened look in his eyes, “After all, I’m Dom Hemingway. I’m Dom Hemingway.” For a fleeting moment, Dom flirts with the notion of abandoning his reputation for the sake of regaining something truly worth having but he cannot break free from the “Dom” persona.
At this point, it’s teased that Dom is going to make a conscious effort at turning over a new leaf. Evelyn agrees to let Dom walk her son to school some time, establishing an openness to the notion of making amends and creating some kind of new life with each other involved. Immediately, though, Dom sees a woman, Paolina, who had previously stolen an exorbitant amount of money from him. Even without hope of recovering his money, Dom forgets the new, decent, man that he is supposed to become and instead, follows her into the restaurant. There, he makes a great display of threatening Paolina with violence and downing her date’s entire drink before aggressively kissing her. Dom then walks out, with a smirk on his face, palming the ring he has stolen off of Paolina’s finger. So why did he do it? Because that’s what “Dom Hemingway” would do. And, most tragically, because “Dom Hemingway” is not just a mask that can be taken off and tucked away. Dom’s identity is inexorable from “Dom.” At best, he may be able to compartmentalize the brutal showman when it really matters but, ultimately, he is a vicious, dangerous man, who has charmed his way back into the lives of people he can hurt more than anyone else.