By Thomas Puhr.

He is a slight man: short and hunched, as if perpetually carrying a heavy load. His head and eyes constantly dart around, almost bug-like. Only when with his dogs, or spending a few days with his estranged daughter, does he seem slightly less on edge. This unease is palpable to others, who either pity or take advantage of him. “You know what they’ll do to a guy like you in jail?” a cop asks him when he gets in trouble with the law.

In short, Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is not a typical movie criminal, and Matteo Garrone’s Dogman (2018) is not a typical crime film. The writer-director’s latest owes much of its success to Fonte’s remarkable performance. The actor completely inhabits the role; from just the slightest gestures (his twitch-like blinking and sunken face when interrogated by the police, for instance), so much can be read.

Although Marcello sells cocaine and works as the occasional getaway driver for small-time robberies, his true passion is his pet-grooming business, “Dogman.” His forays in crime seem less a conscious choice than a banal acceptance of the unspoken codes dictating day-to-day life in his small town. When neighboring business owners debate over hiring hitmen to take out a local troublemaker, he just sits there.

A pushover with other humans (he spends much of the film letting almost every other character walk all over him), Marcello exudes gentleness and kindness with animals. The opening shot shows a dog madly barking into the camera; slowly, patiently, he bathes it and earns its trust. In another telling sequence, he risks arrest by driving back to an apartment, after it has been broken into, to revive a pet that one of the robbers cruelly put in a freezer in order to muffle its barking.

If Garrone’s last crime thriller, the fantastic Gomorrah (2008), was a sprawling landscape painting of a city going to hell, then Dogman is an intimate portrait of one man’s Sisyphean attempts to prove his worth. In keeping with this narrowed focus, the story is efficiently told (at a crisp 103 minutes, it’s the director’s shortest work in more than a decade). Moments that could have been elaborate set pieces are barely given any screen time. A heist, for example, isn’t even shown; we only see the aftermath (a hole in the wall, an empty safe). When Marcello is arrested for refusing to turn over a friend, Garrone jumps a year ahead and skips the time spent in prison entirely. We learn nothing of what happened behind bars, save for an enigmatic line about being “not the same as I was before.”

Dogman 02At the center of this tightened narrative is Marcello’s relationship with Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a dangerous criminal who seems to both fascinate and repulse the timid protagonist. Why he puts both himself and others at risk for this psychotic bully seems completely inexplicable. It’s implied, however, that he sees Simoncino as he would one of his wild dogs that could be tamed and won over.

Tall, muscular, and prone to violent, drug-induced outbursts when he doesn’t get his way (in one scene, he tries to drag a slot machine out of a casino after the proprietor refuses to return the money he lost), Simoncino indeed resembles an animal more than a human. Marcello’s recurring plea, “Simone…”, whenever his “friend” does something dangerous, cleverly alludes to his repetition of the dogs’ names when he grooms them.

This symbolism reaches a graphic extreme when the film morphs into a violent thriller (with, surprisingly, some tinges of horror). It is here that Garrone may lose some audience members, for instead of tying up the story at its logical endpoint (and giving his viewers a streamlined, cathartic revenge tale), he redirects the narrative into unexpectedly-existential territory. During these scenes, the filmmaker incisively juxtaposes Marcello’s climactic act of revenge with images of a soccer field and children’s playground, likening him to a little boy trying to prove his toughness at recess. I for one enjoyed this tonal shift, which is oddly reminiscent of the pretend tennis match that concludes Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), but some may find it extraneous.

The title’s implication of the thin line dividing man and animal is a bit on the nose. At one point, for example, a disapproving local calls Simoncino a dog, and Garrone draws obvious parallels between animal cages and prison cells. It also takes a while for the story to gather some steam, the opening scenes feeling a bit languid. Dogman ultimately triumphs, however, because of Garrone’s cool, efficient visuals and Fonte’s incredible acting. Despite the film’s shortcomings, Marcello emerges as one of the director’s most fascinating, inscrutable characters in quite some time.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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