In this week’s Aubrey’s Causeries, Aubrey Beardsley reviews that 1984 classic, Against All Odds …
A dog’s eye review of Against All Odds (1984), Taylor Hackford (dir), starring Tundra the Samoyed, The Doberman (uncredited), Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward, and James Woods … by Aubrey Beardsley.
Against All Odds is a movie about a dog’s persistent love in the face of abandonment, betrayal, and adversity. It is about a dog’s judgment of actions, not of status and money. It is about the morality of dogs.
This is the story of Sam (Tundra the Samoyed), who is abandoned by his rather spoilt and reckless human, Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward), who runs off to Mexico after stealing her ex-boyfriend’s money. Fortunately for Sam, Jake Wise, the ex-boyfriend (James Woods), looks after him and keeps him fed and groomed and exercised on the beach outside their house. Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges – one of the fabulous Jeffs) is a professional footballer, sacked by his team (owned by Jessie’s mother, whose main business is corrupt property development, including Wyler Canyon) after he sustains a shoulder injury. Knowing he is now at a loose end, Jake asks his friend to go and look for his irresponsible ex-girlfriend in Mexico. When he finds her, Terry inexplicably falls in love with her. This is possibly because she can order two mangoes in Spanish (not that difficult, by the way … it’s “dos mangos”). And she falls in love with Terry apparently because he can run on sand (that moment seems to be the tipping point). But the unconvincing love story is really an afterthought. The real drama is about animal abandonment.
We first meet Sam when Terry goes to visit Jake at his Los Angeles beach house. Some people are playing beach volleyball, and Sam is right there, on the sidelines, barking at all the fun. The ball bounces right in front of Sam, making clear to us that the real game at stake here is that of responsible dog ownership.
Jake calls Sam repeatedly to come, and Sam ignores him for a few times, but finally comes enthusiastically and happily to Jake, who seems genuinely to treasure Sam’s company. He greets him excitedly and says, “Hey! Who’s the fuzzy face? You want a cookie? You want a cookie? There’s one! Woah!” Jake is the only one throughout the whole film who really looks at and engages directly with Sam.
Sam’s loyalty to Jake, and Jake’s obvious affection for Sam, together show us that corruption and criminality is not an all or nothing game. This immediately creates a conflict for the viewer, because we are supposedly being led to grant our sympathies to Jessie and her subsequent relationship with Terry. And Jake is apparently to be dismissed as a ruthless and unscrupulous crook. But the question of morality is so much more complicated than this, and the film makes that clear.
We are confused by our allegiance with Jessie when clearly she has turned her back on Sam, her loyal dog. And at the same time, Sam has offered his loyalty to Jake. As Terry says, “What kind of dog is going to hang out with you, Jake?” At this moment we realise that the question of morality and moral judgment is the central tenet of this film. Dogs judge, but they judge on actions and not on status. It doesn’t matter that Jake may be a shifty and untrustworthy fraudster. Because Jake has always acted responsibly when it comes to Sam. It is Jessie, with whom we are supposed to empathise, who in fact is the irresponsible and selfish character. And this overturning of right and wrong, of good and bad, runs through the film to the point of confusion and despair for any viewer looking for a storybook ending.
So, “What kind of dog is going to hang out with you, Jake?” Jake answers Terry’s question with an explanation of his relationship with Jessie and why he needs Terry’s help to find her, “He doesn’t belong to me, Terry. He belongs to the lady who cut me.” Jake is referring to Jessie’s attack on him with a knife. But it is also a subtle commentary on the very different relationships (and moralities) when it comes to Sam. As Jake says, “he doesn’t belong to me.” For Jake, Sam is another victim of Jessie’s selfishness. He too has been “cut” by Jessie. Sam is his partner in this moral play, not his property. “Come on, Sam. Come on.”
Terry and Jake then get in their respective cars to drive back to Jake’s club, “Jake’s Palace”. Sam sits in the front of Jake’s car and the two cars race, rather dangerously, through all the LA traffic and back into the city. After a tricky move by Jake, Terry loses the race and Sam barks to signal the end of the competition.
Back at the bar, Sam barks repeatedly at Terry when he finally arrives. This is notable because Sam has already met Terry, so his alarm at seeing him again so soon is important. Jake calls out, “Hey, Sam. Be quiet. Get over here.” And Sam immediately returns to Jake. Sam, the moral centre of this film, is once again alerting us to the uncertain character of the main protagonist, Terry.
Terry then goes off to Mexico and goes to the island Cozumel to find Jessie. For a few days he has no luck at all. But then finally he recognises her and, just as he does, a dog barks and crosses the street between them. Dogs again punctuate the scene and provide for us flashes of recognition, signalling important moments in the moral development of the characters. The dogs are the narrators throughout.
When Terry finally tracks down Jessie they go back to Terry’s hotel room and Jessie asks, “How’s Sam?” Terry answers, “Who?” once again showing us his lack of empathy and understanding. Jessie answers, “My dog,” signalling that, to Jessie, Sam is merely property, not a friend as he is to Jake. Terry’s answer is indifferent, “I don’t know, looks
like he’s being fed,” showing that he completely misunderstands the importance of the quality of the dog-human relationship and its significance for an animal’s welfare. It is not just about being fed. Jessie has let Sam down completely. But Jake has been there for him through it all.
Back at her cabin, Jessie tells Terry about her relationship with Jake. She said he wanted her to give up the drugs and saw her through to the other side of her addiction. Once clean, she said she didn’t need him anymore, so she left. Jessie uses people and dogs like tools, even Terry. She doesn’t love them like friends and she shows them no empathy. And when Terry tries to tell Jessie about his own life, she becomes frustrated and impatient. She eventually softens when she sees it’s important to Terry, but Jessie’s lack of empathy is in start contrast to Sam’s and even to the flawed Jake’s.
Jessie and Terry hatch a plan to get away together. They leave separately and after 10 days apart they meet up in Chichen Itza. They go to visit the ruins, where Jessie admits she does have the money and says she never trusted Terry. They are then found by Terry’s former team trainer and friend, Hank Sully, who is working for Jake. Unfortunately for Hank, the ruthless Jessie grabs his gun and shoots him instead. Terry won’t leave his friend who is dying from his wounds. So Jessie runs off and abandons Terry, who is left to deal with the body of his former friend. Once again, Jessie abandons those closest to her.
Terry then returns to Los Angeles to find that Jessie has returned to Jake and Sam, again demonstrating her ruthless and opportunistic nature. She defends her actions, saying someone has always been there to take care of her, the irony of her abandonment of Sam being completely lost on her. Despite his own betrayal, Terry is still in love with her, but he is angry and hurt. As he leaves and tries to get in his car, Sam jumps in first. Immediately we know this is a turning point for Terry. He can leave and be free. Or he can stay and sink further into this moral turpitude. And Sam wants to escape too. Jessie has abandoned them both once before, and neither wants to be abandoned again. For a moment, Terry has a chance to rejuvenate his life through Sam’s eyes. But Terry misses Sam’s cues, and tells him to get out of the car. Terry’s chance at freedom and true love is lost. “I love you,” Jessie says. “Oh yeah, I noticed,” Terry replies sarcastically, and then drives off. A dog being walked along the street turns to look at him speeding away. Just take a look at me now, Terry.
A pivotal moment in Sam’s narration of Jessie and Terry’s story is the next scene on the beach. Jessie is sitting with Sam, staring out to the ocean. Jake walks down to the beach to see them. But he doesn’t greet Jessie, he greets Sam: “Is this Sam? Is this Sam? I bet it is Sam, is it? There’s Sam!” (and hands Sam a cookie). Jake says, “Sam’s crazy about me, that’s a fact. Dogs kill for people they love. Maybe Sam knows I’d kill for you.” Jake aligns his feelings of devotion with those of Sam’s. For Jake, Sam is the only genuine measure of morality and loyalty. Jessie asks, “What do you mean?” And Jake says, “Oh you see that, now you’re looking at me. Why do I have to frighten you to get you to look at me?” Jessie runs back up the hill and Sam follows her. And Jake is left alone on the beach. We know that things are unravelling as Jake literally loses his moral compass in Sam.
Terry gets framed for the murder of the lawyer at the centre of the corruption ring, so he goes to his office with the lawyer’s assistant, Edie, to look for evidence of the elaborate schemes. When they get there, Edie finds a man posing as a security guard, accompanied by a growling Doberman. Edie says a dog shouldn’t be in the office, and her words ring true, given the corruption that is being orchestrated from there. This is no place for a dog, only corruption belongs there.
Unfortunately everything goes awry when Jessie, not knowing Ben’s role in things, calls him for help. Once again, she betrays Jake. Ben turns up with his henchman, Tommy, and at the top of Wyler Canyon it all comes to a head with Terry. Jessie kills Jake, the one person who was always there for Sam. And we are left with a rather unsettling resolution, which actually restores the corrupt status quo with which the film began. And Sam, once again, has lost everything.
The final scene is months later, and Mrs Wyler and Ben Caxton are hosting a publicity function for the Wyler Canyon development. Having stayed away since that night, Terry drops in before he leaves for Miami to play for the Dolphins. Ben goes to talk to him but Jessie merely looks at him from afar. Caxton reiterates that they are no longer a part of each other’s lives, but Terry says one day Jessie will break free. We are led to believe that she needs to break free from her mother and Caxton, but it is really about breaking free from her moral prison. Sam is forgotten and silenced.
Significantly, Sam is not in this final scene, but he is obvious and compelling in his absence. The film plays out to Phil Collins’s theme, Against All Odds, and we realise the lyrics are not about the perverse love of Jessie and Terry, but about Sam’s honest love and his cruel abandonment. Jessie is looking to the camera as the song plays and the credits roll, and we are believe at first that she is looking at Terry, but we never see Terry’s reaction. She’s looking, but perhaps she is looking finally at Sam. Like all dogs, Sam has been “taking every breath with you”. All Sam “can do is watch you leave”. So take a look at him now. And, in fact, the very last frame at the end of the credits is a picture not of Jessie, not of Terry, but of Sam.
Not that I am an apologist for Phil Collins, but this song has been long overlooked as just another love song. But Against All Odds is in fact one of the most moving tributes to rescue animals everywhere and their unwavering loyalty in the face of adversity. Sam’s absence is resonant: “Well, there’s just an empty space.” And like abandoned dogs everywhere, Sam knows, “And you coming back to me is against the odds and that’s what I’ve got to face.”
Abandoned and confused, “I wish I could just make you turn around, Turn around and see me cry.” And like the heart of every dog who has ever been abandoned, “to wait for you is all I can do, and that’s what I’ve got to face”. Some wait months, years, watching, looking, waiting, hoping that someone will return:
Take a good look at me now
‘Cause I’ll still be standing here
And you coming back to me is against all odds
It’s the chance I’ve got to take.
But just like the heart of every rescue dog, when that right human does come along, and does take a look, they discover that’s the chance they’ve got to take. For every rescue dog out there, take a look at me now. The rest was just a movie.