Movie Review: Dogman (2018)

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Undaunted by the sights and sounds of a barking dog snapping his neck forward and baring his fangs in the opening frame, although Marcello (Marcello Fonte) keeps a safe distance at first, once he starts whispering words of encouragement, we quickly realize that this man has never met a dog he couldn't tame.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for humans in Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone's brutal Darwinian western Dogman, which finds the sweet-natured dog groomer Marcello (played by Fonte as a cross between Buster Keaton and Roberto Benigni) struggling to keep a leash on Edoardo Pesce's Simone, a mad-dog ex-boxer turned criminal who terrorizes Marcello's small, sleepy southern Italian town.

Selling cocaine on the side to spoil his beloved daughter with expensive vacations and keep his dog in pasta dinners, Marcello's relationship with Simone grows even more precarious as he plays multiple roles in Marcello's life, including best customer and biggest bully.

A true frenemy running hot and cold on Marcello like one of the alpha dogs that gets dropped off at his workplace, instead of luring him into submission with treats, Marcello uses cocaine, not quite understanding that all it does is make Simone feel more emboldened, barking mad, and invincible.

First cornering the dog groomer to act as a getaway driver in a robbery, soon push comes to shove as Simone puts Marcello in an impossible position, forcing him to choose between loyalty to his fellow business owners (who've openly discussed hiring someone to kill Simone) or letting Simone wreak havoc.

Clinging to the false hope that, having been through a lot together, the two admittedly lonely men in an increasingly cynical world share some sort of codependent bond, the film segues into bleak vengeful western territory midway through.

Fixated on the classic genre paradigm of the weak against the strong (and loosely based on a shocking '80s case), in Dogman, Marcello makes one wrong decision after another until the formerly happy-go-lucky man's smile is long gone.

Steeped in symbolism, it's reminiscent at times of a silent movie or rather two completely different silent features cut together. But factoring in Garrone's complete lack of subtlety, the film's existential Camus inspired conclusion fails to land the way it should, coming as it does after Dogman's far more compelling, character-driven first half.

Still a devastating drama elevated by Fonte's captivating, Cannes Film Festival award-winning performance, while Dogman's overwrought final act never feels fully earned, the film, which was Italy's official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film is still well worth seeing due to its intriguing blend of classical genres and archetypes that, much like a barking criminal or canine, Dogman nearly tames.

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