Following two Cannes efforts both met politely, but a little meso meso by critics, the comedy “Reality” and the dark fantasy of “Tale Of Tales,” Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone returns to the crime genre that launched his career in 2008 (“Gomorrah“) with the equally disturbing “Dogman.” Yet, instead of simply returning to the comfortable well that yielded his best notices, Garrone looks at the seed of violence through another lens; not the pervasive malignancy of mafia corruption, but a rather an unsettling, malevolent individual perpetrating his own brand of terror. A hyper-realistic urban tragedy “Dogman” is ferocious and in its own way, much more frightening than “Gomorrah.”
Adapted from a news item that shook Italy back in 1988, “Dogman” focuses on Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a former boxer prone to violence and cocaine addict fresh out of prison, who torments an Italian village. Meanwhile, the unsuspecting the titular dog man, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a simple man who loves his daughter and owns a grooming salon for canines, inadvertently finds himself in the barrel of Simoncino’s wrath.
The “friendship” between dog-loving Marcello and small-town bully Simoncino borders on an abusive relationship of familiarity: Marcello oddly respects Simoncino, while the ex-pugilist intimidates and threatens his “pal” on an almost daily basis. Marcello isn’t the only victim or Simoncino’s rage, however. Between manipulating Marcello into driving a getaway car from a heist that ends up with a beloved dog in the freezer, to head butting and breaking a slot machine after losing money, and even breaking a villager’s nose for talking back to him, Simoncino terrorizes everyone in town. Eventually, poor Marcello takes the fall for Simoncino’s crimes and ends up in jail.
Constantly high on cocaine, capable of killing with his bare hands and like a blind dog in a meat market, Simoncino’s presence in the film is terrifying. Pesce delivers a chillingly physical performance and his ferocious, intensifying screen keeps the film’s tension at anxiety-inducing levels. Conversely, Fonte character’s fragility is strikingly at odds with Simoncino’s dominating, colossal force. Small in mien, Marcello has a shy, forced smile, and his love of dogs is the only respite from Simoncino’s fury. Fonte is reminiscent of a younger, gaunter version of Pacino in his ’70s heyday, and brings starling humanism to his role.
When Simoncino finally asks too much of Marcello, the film deepens and ratchets up, as a story of justice and revenge starts to boil and the characters are led to an inevitable final showdown.
While “Dogman” features graphic violence, the true excruciating torture of the film is Simoncino’s dangerously unpredictable screen presence. Even when the violence is harsh, it is always surrounded by a kind of realism that feels organic to the story. As the film arrives at its bloody conclusion, a shot in the last five minutes would have made for a perfect bookend to the opening which features a rabid, violent dog chained to a wall, but Garrone insists on stretching his conclusion a little too much, to the film’s detriment. It’s then, in these final, crucial moments, where film stumbles in an unfortunately excessive fashion.
Based on true-life events that set off Italy’s sensationalist media into near frenzy, “Dogman” turns out to be a kind of David vs. Goliath story. Described as an urban western, while the drama does possess traces of Eastwood’s early no-frills gut-punches, it’s also very much a B-movie soaked in horror and revenge. “Dogman” finds Garrone back in fine form and mostly, at the height of his game; the allure of his monstrous Simoncino character is undeniable and he earns extra credit for creating one of the most reprehensible movie villains in recent memory. “Dogman” is a malicious breed that features both bark and bite, and a nasty snarl you won’t soon forget. [B+]