November 20, 2018

Through a dog’s ordeal, director focuses on humanity

Filmmaker Boaz Yakin (“Fresh,” “Remember the Titans”) is best known in Jewish circles for controversial, intense works that depict fraught aspects of the tribal experience. 

His 1998 movie, “A Price Above Rubies,” spotlights a sexually frustrated, married Chasidic woman (Renee Zellweger) who chafes against the confines of her rigid community; “Death in Love” (2008) stars Jacqueline Bisset as a Jew who survived the Holocaust by sleeping with a sadistic Nazi doctor and portrays the effect that tortured legacy has on her sons; and Yakin’s graphic novel “Jerusalem: A Family Portrait” — which draws in part on his family’s participation in Israel’s War of Independence — depicts in searing detail the infamous massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin in April 1948, among other conflicts.

So some who identify Yakin with these intensely personal projects might find it surprising that his newest endeavor is not an edgy drama at all, but an ultimately uplifting family film, “Max,” released by Warner Bros., which takes place in the patriotic milieu of the American heartland. The movie revolves around a military working dog, a Belgian Malinois named Max, who is severely traumatized after the death of his handler, Kyle, during a battle in Afghanistan. Just as the canine is about to be euthanized, however, he is adopted by Kyle’s family in rural Texas. Over the course of the film, the dog learns to overcome his post-traumatic stress disorder, as he helps Kyle’s parents and troubled teenage brother heal from their respective losses.

On a recent Friday morning, Yakin, 49, was sitting in the backyard of a friend’s house in Los Angeles, surrounded by his pal’s four friendly dogs — one of them a tiny mutt coincidentally also named Max, who jumped up on Yakin’s lap for a pet. 

“The connection that people have with animals is very interesting,” the writer-director said of one reason he wanted to make the movie. “We drop many of our defenses and our self-protections, because we relate to animals in a way that we don’t with other people.

“I love dogs, even though I don’t have one of my own right now, and I felt it had been a long time since we had a hard-hitting dog film that wasn’t so much in a kiddie framework,” Yakin added, as a Shih Tzu approached for some attention, along with an elderly black Labrador.  

And so when Yakin’s longtime friend, Sheldon Lettich, a Vietnam veteran and screenwriter, suggested two years ago that they co-write a film about a military dog, Yakin was immediately in. He explained that, at the time, he had recently overcome a lifetime of deep depression through the implementation of a writing exercise — part meditation, part cognitive realignment — that he had developed and begun to practice daily. 

“The films I was being offered at the time were cynical,” he said. “But I was in a place where I felt like I wanted to do something positive.”

Yakin’s parents grew up in Israel, his father of Syrian and Egyptian roots, his mother descended from Polish Jews, many of whom died in the Holocaust. Even though his parents were secular — they’re mimes who met while studying with Marcel Marceau in Paris — they were also ardent Zionists who sent their son to an Orthodox yeshiva with a strong Zionist focus in New York. 

Yet by the age of 11, Yakin had helped spur a classroom debate about the validity of creationism; he also was deeply affected by what he described as the yeshiva’s “super Holocaust stuffed down your throat 24/7” method of teaching about the Shoah.

“It promoted a sense of victimization and otherness,” he said. “And they also used it as a kind of narcissistic proof that the Jews are so much better than everyone else. I know it sounds cruel to say that about something like the Holocaust, but it’s not the Holocaust I’m talking about. It’s the way people used the Holocaust afterward. So you develop on the one hand this sense of inferiority and anxiety, and on the other hand a sense of narcissistic isolation.”

Yakin channeled some of those feelings into “Death in Love,” which, he said, was also spurred by his own decades of depression. “My entire experience of life had been colored by this intense negativity, and at some level I felt that unless I tackled and explored that, I wouldn’t be able to go on,” he said. “ ‘Death in Love’ is a study of the cyclical quality of depression, and perhaps about being in love with your own negativity. And that certainly raises provocative questions about how much that cycle is a part of our Jewishness today.”

Even though “Max” is a very different kind of film, Yakin said, it, too, asks tough questions — in this case, about the psychological repercussions of war for man and beast. 

“Dogs are being bred and trained and basically thrown into combat, although the dogs didn’t ask for it; it isn’t their fight,” he said. “There’s something challenging and uncomfortable about that. But the truth is, we’re doing the same thing to people.”

Yakin added that the film “becomes a metaphor for sending innocent beings off to battle. It’s tremendously clear that this movie is about a bunch of people who are traumatized by war and unable to be who they should be because of this constant burden. The subtext of the movie — and it’s not that hidden — is the emasculation of the American male in this constant state of war. The character of the father [a Vietnam veteran played by Thomas Haden Church], is literally crippled and unable to be honest; his son, Kyle, is f—–g dead; [Kyle’s friend and fellow Marine] has become cynical and twisted; and [Kyle’s] younger brother has to figure out where he wants to land in the middle of this mess.”

Meanwhile, the character of Max, who in combat was sent ahead of the troops to sniff out bombs, cowers as he relives his wartime ordeal amid fireworks on the Fourth of July, among other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“The film acknowledges the power of a family to exist in the midst of tragedy, to be healed and to bond,” Yakin said, “but I hardly think of it as a flag-waving exercise.”

“Max” is now in theaters.