film review 'dashboard dogs' dir toco (tom conyer)

By Meredith Fuller OAM Psychologist & Author

I attended a screening of DASHBOARD DOGS by auteur TOCO (Tom Conyers); a dark (very dark) comedy (very funny) that explores a loveable anti hero’s journey to his core self as an artist. A serial killer looking for meaningful self-expression as an artist juxtaposed with existential loneliness and longing for understanding is an unusual trajectory.

A packed audience at CINEMA NOVA enjoyed this film; a deft feat when the subject includes confronting themes of today, i.e. murder, serial killing, violence, and loneliness. The latter is the real kicker in my opinion as a psychologist/author.

“My aim was to make a dark comedy wrapped in a strange fairytale ambiance. At the heart of it, I was trying to make an allegory about the artist’s journey.

Becoming a serial killer and, most importantly, a serial killer who can plan and carry out “work” consistently, and not just when “irked”, is a stand-in for the artist’s struggle to produce consistently and at a high level, and not just when inspiration takes hold.

Leo comes into an inheritance, which gives him the financial freedom finally to be able to pursue his dream. This freedom is represented by his car. A bit like Cinderella who finally gets to attend the ball, and travels there in the carriage created from a pumpkin.

Leo meets a false mentor in Tony. Tony talks eloquently about his “artistic” manifesto, as does Gretel, but Leo is unable to articulate what his particular style is.

Throughout the story, he tries many various weapons (gun, sword, crowbar, knife, which represent various artistic mediums he’s trying out).

In the end, he looks at his fists, and decides that his hands are his mode of expression. Unlike Tony and Gretel who can wax lyrical about their lofty artistic aims, Leo is more of a craftsman. Less intellectualised, more about the actual “hands-on” aspect of creativity.

He’s also concerned, unlike them, with how creative pursuits can be damaging to people around the artist. Gretel thinks she’s doing her victims a favour by “permanently putting a smile on their faces.” She has literally created her own audience of appreciative fans, all “smiling back at me.”  Tony, too, isn’t concerned about any victims, so long as lobotomising males makes a statement about “patriarchal mindlessness.”

In a way, Leo surpasses Tony and Gretel, by focusing his art in a way that will be beneficial, by only targeting serial killers. He finally achieves his aim of despatching a villain in a planned way (i.e. a consistent and concentrated artistic effort rather than a moment’s flash in the pan) but he immediately feels flat, as he gazes out his car window at the end of the film. This taps into the way artists will often feel flat after creation. The euphoria doesn’t last long.

The “real” Lobotomist represents the disappointment people can sometimes feel when they meet artists. Tony has projected all sorts of lofty artistic aspirations on the Lobotimist’s “art”. But as the Lobotomist says, he’s not making a statement about patriarchal mindlessness; he just prefers lobotomising and consuming male brains because “they generally haven’t been worked as hard.” In a way, the Lobotomist is just as conceited in his posture as an anti-artist as Tony and Gretel are in presenting themselves as high-concept artists. The Lobotomist makes a show of being a “Serial killer (i.e. artist) not a wanker.”

Kya and Jesse (the two young hitchhikers) are, to me, representations of young artists who never get a chance. Their artistic freedom (again, as represented through cars) has been completely curtailed. Jesse’ car is at the wreckers, and Kya’s has been impounded because she went too fast. They talk briefly about catching a train instead of hitchhiking but as Kya says, “with trains you always know where you’re going to end up.”

Just as we’re about to see them despatched, we see two unfortunate dead foxes on a train line, representing their demise. In a way, Jesse and Kya did end up on that train, and the audience always kind of knew where they’d end up. (By the way, I saw those two foxes by chance, got that footage, then worked it into the story.)

Kya could have run Leo over, and possibly escaped (although Tony was still in the car), but her concerns for others and doing the right thing was her downfall.

Jesse and Kya are like Red Riding Hood, who ventures out on her own, only to meet a supposedly benign presence, her grandmother, who actually turns out to be the big bad wolf,” says Tom.

I admire independent directors who are able to take on multiple roles and keep control of their film (as well as keeping costs low)

Tom explains that he wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, colour-graded and sound mixed. He also did the visual effects, made the sets, the bone sculptures, and the paintings. He did use professionals to oversee the final soundmix.

“I created the music either on my own or in conjunction with various up-and-coming music producers from around the world. Some of these music producers also created entire tracks of their won for the film,” he says.

I particularly liked his direction and videography – great thought, skill, and care went into this film. There are several tricky sections to film and he demonstrates his commitment to patient detail.

There are many laughs and some poignant moments. Watch out for a cast member who appears towards the end of the film – if she doesn’t elicit a heartfelt tear the moment she first appears on screen, you are probably a malignant narcissist. She deserves a cult following.

The message of this film has several interpretations and will encourage lively debate over coffee.

“Loneliness is a key part of the film too, the loneliness of the artist. Leo cuts a lonely figure and for all his desire to become a serial killer, maybe what he really wants is to connect with other people,” Tom muses. Or something else!

In a refreshing attitude towards casting, the director trawled through hundreds of showreels on Star Now and approached the actors directly. He was only aware of a few actors beforehand. Taking the time to view actor showreels and provide an opportunity for lesser known actors has paid off – the entire cast works well together.


film review 'dashboard dogs' dir toco (tom conyer)

Cast list for Dashboard Dogs. 

Leo  (Nigel Agyekumhene)

Tony (John McCullough)

Gretel (Nichola Jayne)

Kya (Shamita Siva)

Jesse (Grant Young)

The Lobotomist (Justin Moore )

Constable Smith   (Gina Claire)

Inspector Dungworth (the telepathic cop) (Salman Arif)

Sarah (first hitchhiker) (Nic Stevens)

Kingy (her boyfriend) Makuei King Aden

News Reporter (Olivia Cipriani)

Arcade worker (Michael Sainsbery)

Drunk/Various TV Ad voice/Gretel’s M.C./Constable on phone (myself)

Quiet Drunk (Russell Sanders)

Talkative Drunk (Neil King)

Fun Park Cafe Owner (Jennifer King)

Sarcastic Teen (Evie King)

Older teen (Connah Kin)

Happy Kid (Michaela Crisan)

Shy Kid (Ileana Crisan)

Shocked Patron (Ruth Crisan)

Mechanic (Leslie Young)

Running Man (Samuel Kyaw)

Millie (my dog) (as herself)

The two leads, Nigel Agyekumhene as Leo, and John McCullough as Tony, are great foils for each other. Their facial expressions are priceless. Their extremely different personalities are charming.

I was particularly taken with John McCullough’s performance – he was outstanding as a psychopath who could elicit our empathy and understanding.

My constructive criticism would be about the length of this film. There’s a wise saying in filmmaking, ‘you have to kill some of your babies’. In other words, edit ruthlessly and force yourself to let go of footage that you are probably most attached to.

I would like to see this film pruned down as I suspect that a shorter film would increase the wow factor. But having said that, I appreciate that these are not babies to kill. It’s a hard call. I could argue that viewers drawn to this film are probably familiar with the topics and would quickly understand the subtext by the second or third repeat of a theme, but perhaps it may be the case that the director wished to introduce his work to a wider audience who might need further repetition to embed the conscious and unconscious.

Watch out for Toco’s coming film “La Famiglia”, currently in post-production.  that Focusing on the female members of a Melbourne Mafia family, it doesn’t have the comedic element.  He met many Italians to help authenticate the script.

Meredith Fuller

OAM Psychologist, Author, Theatre Director, Spokesperson on psychology for the media, radio and TV. Current project: domestic violence film & e-book with @Mystical Dog Productions

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