Why It's So Hard to Watch the Dog Die in Movies
In 2014, when I wrote our review for the first John Wick film, I remember one of the earliest comments on the article being about the death of Wick’s dog, an adorable little beagle puppy. I made sure to make note of it in the review, because I knew it would be a sticking point with readers, particularly sympathetic readers like Pajiba’s, For those who don’t know or recall, Wick’s dog is murdered by Alfie Allen and his gang of Russian goons, and it’s part of what sends him on the homicidal rampage that made the film legend and helped spawn a sequel. And the question in the comments was about when it happens, and how graphic it was. I replied, saying it’s early in the film, and off-screen, but there’s no question about what happened. The commenter said something along the lines of “then that’s how long I’ll wait in the bathroom before going into the movie.” It seems so silly — to skip part of a movie that was being so gushingly praised, because of an animal’s death, a death that you don’t even see, in a film where the protagonist slaughters what seems like dozens of human beings.
But I get it.
Animals dying in films is an odd phenomenon, and one that not everyone gets. I understand the confusion, the inability to grasp that phenomenon — they’re not people. They don’t speak, hold a job, feed us. They’re not one of us. The connection that humans feel toward animals, particularly when it comes to movies, makes little sense, except to those who understand it completely. I’m one of those people. I’m a sucker for animals, which is no secret. I married a veterinarian. At its most crowded, our house once had four cats, three dogs, and a guinea pig. I adore animals, and yes, their death onscreen or off is something I’d prefer not to see. I’ve seen John Wick a half-dozen times now, and each time I skip those few critical seconds when that little beagle is murdered. I Am Legend is a deeply flawed film, but it captures the essence of an animal lover near-perfectly. The scene of Will Smith putting his infected German Shepard down is searing, and in a film where literally all of humanity is wiped out, it is easily the hardest to watch.
Why is that? What is it about animals that hits us so hard? There are plenty of explanations out there, and they generally follow along the same lines as why people don’t want to see children hurt in movies and television. There’s an element of helplessness, of innocence to them. They have no role in the universe yet, other than to be loved by us, to be cared for by us. And to have one so violently removed from that universe is so very discomfiting. Adult humans know the world. We know how cruel and terrible it can be. So when a grown-up is faced with death in a film, it is often tragic, even heartbreaking, but at the same time, there’s an element of understanding. We know what death is. We understand its inevitability. In many ways, we’re waiting for it, no matter how young or old an adult we are. And so when it happens, no matter how savage or unexpected it may be? Well, we knew that someday, our ticket was going to get punched. Children and animals, we think, don’t have that level of comprehension. So there’s something terrible about them facing that specter too soon. They shouldn’t have it happen too soon, and they shouldn’t be alone or afraid.
In December of last year, my beloved Irish Setter/Pointer mix, Ceili (“Kay-Lee”), was put to sleep. It was awful, but I have no regrets about it. She had a fine life — rescued from a research laboratory at a mere 13 weeks old, she enjoyed almost 15 years of ball-chasing and swimming and camping and naps in the dappled sunlight. She was loved by my wife and me, and later adored by our little boy. We eventually took in two more dogs — a three-legged beagle named Audrey and a pint-sized ball of miscellaneous fluff named Louise, and she patiently endured their puppy-like frolicking and climbing all over her. They routinely slept together, in one big pile on a giant dog-bed that we threw in the middle of the room that started out as our library but came to be known as “the dog room”. And so, when Ceili was faced with the end — in kidney failure, prone to fits of dizziness, not eating and sick, it was sad, but there was no regret. She had us with her until the very end, and the only hurt left behind was ours.
That’s the death we want for animals, if we have to think about it at all. Frankly, most of us don’t think about it. Not because it never crosses our minds, but because we likely force it out of our minds. I probably think of my own death 20 times a day. But the moment I inexplicably think of my dog or my son dying? I shamefully and angrily force the thought out of my way, loathing myself for even contemplating it. They’re too young, too innocent, too new to the world. That’s what hits us about animals dying in films. Of course we know that Daisy the beagle doesn’t really die in John Wick, but it brings back that thought that we so often force into submission. It confronts us with the death of innocence, and that’s not something we’re ready or willing to contemplate. We can understand the death of an adult, someone whose life has been filled with happiness and sadness, success and regret. But the young and the innocent have too much left to do. There are still balls to chase, children to play with, lawns to nap on.
There’s more to it, of course. The bond that we form with our pets is fierce and intense, and to those who aren’t animal lovers (which, mind you, is a perfectly valid viewpoint), inexplicable. When Ceili died, I went on a lengthy Twitter thread about this. Animals change our lives, and make us better. They teach us to love without condition, to care for something, and for the most part, whatever you give them, you get back. It’s also why people who adopt shelter animals are often so strongly adamant about it — you see yourself as that animal’s salvation. Of course the irony is, it’s often the other way around. Hell, the entire story of John Wick revolves around this idea. His wife, and later his dog, were his salvation, and that dog’s death led him back into the darkness. And that’s the thing about animals — we believe that they bring light into our lives, and their deaths onscreen dims that light just a little bit.
So once again, this comes with a bit of a gut-punch. By the time you read this, I’ll likely have put my beagle, Audrey, to sleep. I’m writing this Thursday night, our last night with her — they found a massive tumor on her heart, and she’s in pain that isn’t going to lessen. So once again, a mere eight months later, we’re making that terrible-but-right decision that pet lovers must make, choosing to lose what we love … because we love her too much to keep here with us while she suffers. But it’s OK. Like Ceili, Audrey, otherwise known as simply Beagle, or Beags, has had a hell of a run. We took her in at six months old, after being hit by a car, when her owner didn’t want to pay the few hundred bucks it would cost to amputate her leg. So my wife did the amputation, then brought her home — under my strong objections — to “foster her for a few days until we find a permanent home for her.” That was over ten years ago. She’s a sneaky one, my wife, knowing it would take me a matter of hours to get attached. And I did, and so Beags had a full life of laughter and silliness and howling at nothing in the backyard, rolling around with her sister dogs, cuddling with our son, being consoled when she would freak out at thunderstorms, or fireworks, or, hell, changes in barometric pressure for all I know. She was a skittish thing, but she was ours and we like to think her life has been a good one. And so there will be a hole in our lives, but no regrets, no anger, no fear. We’ll take her to the hospital together, and we’ll face her final moments with her. She won’t be alone, or afraid.
So if you’re not a dog person, please read this and understand. Understand your friends and family who can be so passionate about their animals, and so shattered at their loss. Don’t mock them when they cover their eyes in the theater, or when they tell you they’re going to skip a particular movie. You don’t have to get it. You don’t even have to agree with it. You just have to show some humanity. Because no matter how hard-hearted I may be, I’m never watching Theon and his goons kill poor Daisy again. And that’s perfectly OK.
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