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Here is a spoiler that I’m sure you’ll be okay with: none of the dogs die in Dogman. It’s a strange coincidence that the new crime genre from Italian director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah) comes out a week before the latest chapter in the John Wick saga. Each is the story of a gentle man who loves dogs, and the violence that enters his life against his will. The canines live in Dogman. It saves its punishment for bigger beasts.
Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is a simple dog groomer living in a quiet beach community in Italy. It’s not a prosperous place—it looks like a town left behind—but Marcello is rich in love. He is beloved by his friends in town, is close with his young daughter, and has a rare affection for the pets he grooms and boards in his small shop. His heart for animals is tested one evening when he is roped into being a getaway driver for local thug Simone (Edoardo Pesce). When Simone returns to the car after robbing a private home and brags about putting a barking chihuahua into the freezer, Marcello breaks back into the house and revives the frozen pup.
Simone picks on Marcello because of his diminutive size and accommodating nature, but he is also a menace to the whole neighborhood. He terrorizes local merchants by demanding free goods and erupts in violence at the slightest provocation. A group of local men consider calling the police on him after one particularly vicious attack, but they decide against it. His vendetta is not worth the risk. Worst of all, he intimidates Marcello into continued participation in his crimes. Pesce has the crooked face and physique of a heavyweight prizefighter, and when placed next to the elfin Marcello, you can feel the latter’s helplessness to fight back.
Throughout its surprising twists and turns, the threat of violence hangs over the film, especially when Simone is around, but it is never sensationalized. Dogman is a realistic slow-burn, carefully building the corners that Marcello feels pushed into. Although the police make an appearance, his town feels empty and lawless, like some outpost in the Old West. With the sea on one side and the mountains on another, Garrone succeeds in imbuing the film with a strong claustrophobia. When violence comes, it feels strangely justified despite its vileness because you can feel how trapped these characters are.
The tension is masterfully held by its dueling lead actors, both of whom have the easy naturalism of non-professionals. Fonte in particular carries a heavy load. Small and wiry, he wears a contrived smile on his face to ward off potential aggressors. He carries himself like a child through the world, which reflects onto Pesce the feel of a schoolyard bully. They are a mismatched pair, as diametrically opposed in physique as Abbott and Costello, but there are similarities that bring a rich and unexpected pathos to the proceedings. Like dogs in a fight, their only way out is to scuffle. Dogman has its grim moments, but its empathy for creatures great and small sets it apart.
Dogman opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.