When we first meet Matt (Rob Grabow), he is at rock bottom. Having been arrested 48 hours earlier for drunk and disorderly behaviour (he punched a bartender), Matt is released from the police lockup at night, and doubles over with delirium tremens on the station’s outdoor stairs. Such withdrawal, Matt says in voiceover, is “like dying and rebirth happening at once – but with no family to lovingly send you off, or to greet you with big smiles and open arms, a drinker like me is always alone.”
Matt’s beloved father (Aaron C. Finley, seen in flashbacks) died in a car accident when Matt was still a little boy (Logan Hanley), and he hasn’t seen his mother (Catrin Lofgren) in 15 years. Yet Matt is not as alone as he imagines. For he is picked up by Fred (Michael Spears), who has agreed to serve as Matt’s sponsor and to put him up in a cabin on his ranch to dry out. And there is Greg (Jon Proudstar), similarly damaged by an alcoholic past and now an expert dog trainer, who introduces himself at Matt’s first AA meeting. And there is Julie (Alyssa Groenig), a sales assistant who occasionally delivers mail to the ranch, and is more than helpful to Matt. There is even Rick (Jeff Medley), who works for the local weight pulling competition and who, despite his gruff, grumpy exterior, is ultimately accommodating, even friendly, towards Matt.
Yet despite the best intentions of these people, and their willingness to pull through for Matt even when they have their own struggles, Matt himself does his best to alienate them all and to cling to his loneliness like a self-destructive defence. The one exception is an Alaskan husky which Matt finds on Fred’s farm. Longing for the kind of unconditional attachment which he had previously secured, after his father’s death, from the family pet, Matt adopts the dog, naming him Youpick (after the phrase which Fred uses when they discuss what to call him). The name will acquire a different spelling and resonance as the film goes on, as will the dog’s meaning in Matt’s life. For Yup’ik will become all at once a fellow stray, a model for stamina, endurance and powering through adversity, a similar sufferer of potentially fatal gastric issues, and of course this man’s best friend.
Where Yup’ik must carry his weight within 30 seconds in the local pulling events, Matt must last the distance for 30 days of sobriety before he can visit his estranged mother in the hospice where she is dying – and there is a suggestion here that both these struggles are parallel. For The Year of the Dog is a narrative of healing and recovery, as well as an acknowledgment of what cannot be fixed and must be left behind. Co-directed by its star and writer Grabow along with Andrew McGinn and Michael Peterson (all having their feature debut), this traces a lost, damaged soul as he gradually finds his centre in the bleak beauty of wintry Montana, where dying and rebirth happen all at once, and where the warmth of connection (canine and human) is available to anyone ready, one day at a time, to come out from the cold.
strap: In Rob Grabow, Andrew McGinn & Michael Peterson’s Montana-set debut drama, a recovering alcoholic and his new best friend learn together to pull their weight
© Anton Bitel