The story of an inspirational man and his faithful dog sounds contrived enough, but throw in said dog owner being a homeless war vet, and the adorable Border Collie being deathly ill, and you have the makings of an epic tear-jerker. That’s not even taking into account a long-absent daughter searching for her dad, a veterinarian with a heart of gold, and a community of kind-hearted people that rises up to help, a la “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Based on true events, Michael J. Murray’s script tugs the heart with such precision it might touch even the hardest of them.
Steven Weber stars as Terry Pulaski, a marine who returns home from his tour in Afghanistan with a debilitating shrapnel wound and an unwanted desk job. His wife (Kendall Cross) and daughter Alice (Rowan Rycroft) try to help him through bouts of depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder, but a final medical discharge from the service throws him over the edge. He finds comfort with Duke, the stray dog that suddenly wanders into the family’s life.
Fast forward 10 years and Terry, like thousands of vets in California, is now living on the streets. Convinced he was dragging his family down with him, he abandoned his wife and daughter and hasn’t seen them since. He does still have Duke, his faithful companion, who entertains locals while Terry works odd jobs fixing appliances.
When Duke suddenly falls seriously ill, Terry doesn’t have the money for endless tests and decides to have him put down, but doesn’t have the heart to stay and watch the deed done. Leaving a note at the animal hospital in apology, he goes off to try putting his life back together, without realizing the doc isn’t ready to give up on Duke, or that his now-grown daughter (Sarah Smyth) has never really given up on him, either.
Director Mark Jean takes a script that has all the earmarks of a classic country song (even the old Winnebago breaks down at one point) and gives it more mettle than the average Hallmark yarn. The pic has a flag-waving, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethos, but also delivers a look at a system that provides better care to pets than veterans returning from war.
Weber conveys the overwhelming heartache and trauma of PTSD while maintaining a sense of pride. By making it believable for a man who has everything to lose it all, “Duke” calls attention to the plight of troubled veterans without getting preachy.