Baxter, A Dog and His Boy

This is not a review, it is analysis and as such involves spoilers.

There are so many different ways to engage Baxter, a film directed by Jérôme Boivin in 1989. Its a political film about our relationship to power. Its psychological film about our inner impulses and conflicts. Its a portrait of troubled child, or a portrait of dog wrestling with existentialism.

Baxter is a bull terrier in search of a good master. His genetically ingrained desire for an alpha to follow is his weakness. Without outside direction and discipline Baxter is prone to what he calls “unnatural thoughts.” Baxter is unsatisfied with his previous masters. They lack confidence and conviction.

Baxter’s desire is a reflection of our own. We all have a natural attraction to authority. The stronger the authority the more basic and compelling the attraction. It is comforting to have absolute order with an absolute sense of right and wrong. Everything is clear, there are no grey areas, and all we need to do is follow the leader. It gives us a sense of purpose and our lives a meaningful structure.

As a species we are both predators and social pack animals. Baxter is as well. Both dogs and humans have the capacity to bond and love as well as to compete and kill. Baxter is not just our animal side. He is propelled by the same insoluble inner conflict between self-interest and our desire to be social.

Baxter plans to kill the young boy who is his master, but when the perfect moment presents itself the boy simply yells “heel” and the dog is unable to defy the order. This then gives the boy the ability to beat him to death. Baxter’s desire for a master who will provide him with meaningful purpose betrays him and is his ultimate undoing.

We never learn what Baxter’s unnatural thoughts are, but he fears these tendencies the way we fear our animal tendencies. We disown our baser urges and believe them to be inhuman but of course as the term “base” implies they are foundational to our being human, to being a human animal.

In the end Baxter is more human than his psychopathic, human master. Baxter is attracted to the boy’s decisiveness and courage but these traits stem from the lack of the boy’s internal dialogue. The boy is empty inside. Baxter, like us, finds psychopaths attractive. They are the confident ones, the independent ones who aren’t afraid to take risks and take on the world.

Some people might see this film as a dark and it certainly does not have a happy ending but the narrative isn’t really the point, its the dynamic. It doesn’t matter what happens as much as how it happens. It is the motivations and mechanisms that drive the character’s actions that are the heart of the film. Baxter is trying to discover his true nature and be faithful to it, and in part at least, if not all together he succeeds.

I have an MFA in painting and I’m an art professor but I managed to convince my school to let me teach film.