“Don’t get mixed up with the wrong crowd.” It’s an aphorism as old as time. And so it is in Matteo Garrone’s Dogman, which tells the story of Marcello, the eponymous dogsbody, who offers massages, kennels and show-prep for canine companions.
The protagonist’s life on the margins has a darker side though, as he takes on other jobs to make ends meet and provide for his daughter, including getaway driver and small-time cocaine dealer to his mates. It is one of these friends – the barrel-chested, cocaine-addicted, wild-man Simeone – who increasingly leads Marcello astray, with coercion based on threats and violence, as well as more insidious appeals to his better nature and financial situation.
The inability of police, friends or the community to save someone from a toxic relationship – underpinned by physical brutality and control which preclude any attempt to run, hide or tell – absolutely has currency as a central theme. Unfortunately, in its second half, Garrone’s film abandons this in favour of a balder morality tale. The feature has one really interesting idea and spends slightly too long not quite exploring it.
Marcello Fonte’s central performance (for which he won best actor at Cannes) is understatedly brilliant. With more than just a passing physical resemblance to a young Al Pacino (especially once he gets a split lip and a broken nose), the lead delivers a performance which morphs gradually from quiet, loving and withdrawn to vindictive and determined.
Oscillating between brutal, frenetic bloodshed and a careful documenting of one man’s everyday life, the movie’s tone strives for a gritty depiction of a tough but ordinary existence spiralling inexorably out of control. The filmmaker relies on the camera to tell the story, with dialogue strictly limited, creating a constant and pervasive sense of dread that occasionally explodes into the aforementioned barbarity, typical of the director’s work.
The problem is that while the audience repeatedly watch Marcello and his daughter dive down to the Mediterranean seabed, they are prevented from exploring similar depths of character, relationship and motive elsewhere in the film. This is perhaps best summed up by the construction of Marcello’s persona using the animal-lover-equals-good-guy trope. As a consequence, even the feature’s most gut-wrenching violence is unpleasant, rather than painful or cathartic, to watch. Ultimately, reliance on the camera results in an exquisitely made, but shallow and occasionally sluggish, fable.
Dogman is released in select cinemas on 19th October 2018.
Watch the trailer for Dogman here: