Never mind Dogman’s two leads (Marcello Fonte and Edoardo Pesce) nor its parade of cute pooches, the movie’s real star is Castel Volturno, a grim seaside town about 35km northwest of Naples, most famous in real life for a massacre that occurred there in 2008.
We’re used to places being film “characters” in their own right – Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Tokyo in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation – to the point where it has become something of a cliché. However, Dogman simply wouldn’t be the same without Castel Volturno’s glowering skies, ugly metal girders and grey beaches. The place is stifling, oppressive and Italian director Matteo Garrone shoots it like something out of a nightmare, all of which serves to tip you off that whilst the film may start off as an offbeat comedy, an altogether darker tone is waiting just around the corner and will ultimately come to dominate the narrative.
Garrone's film begins with a close-up of a snarling terrier – trapped, scared and lashing out. Local dog groomer-cum-drug dealer Marcello (Fonte) is trying his best to calm the animal so he can give it a wash and brush up. A small, weaselly man seemingly forever on the verge of apologising for something, Marcello spends quite a lot of the movie attempting to soothe the ire of such creatures, one of them all-too human.
Bull-headed former boxer Simone (Pesce) is an unreconstructed thug. He speeds up and down on a big, noisy motorcycle, bullies and subjugates everyone in town. His treatment of Marcello is especially egregious, forever slapping him, pushing him around, and helping himself to wraps of cocaine with no intention of paying for them. And that’s only the start.
Garrone’s film marks a return to some of the gritty crime tropes he fully explored in Gomorrah (2008), but it’s shot through with something of the eccentricity that made Reality (2012) and Tale of Tales (2015) so intoxicating too. At its heart, though, is a simple question: for how long will Marcello put up with the bullying before he finally snaps?
The answer is quite a long time but, while that waiting game plays out, Garrone also invites us to interrogate the true character of our supposed protagonist. Is he a good man being slowly driven to commit an evil act or simply a rotten individual in the first place who is, when placed under sustained pressure, every bit as savage as his tormentor?
Marcello is kind to animals and has a young daughter he dotes on. He only seems happy and free when the pair are on holiday somewhere, scuba diving in the ocean. But the other side of his moral coin is rather more complicated. He deals drugs, is on good terms with local villains and his behaviour after being forced into helping Simone rob the business next door to his dog-grooming shop is puzzling at best. He is no angel, but it is nevertheless heartbreaking to see his humanity slowly but surely stripped away over the course of the film, every new humiliation and setback pushing him further into a corner.
The man Marcello is at the end of Dogman bears no relation to the flawed but gentle creature who, earlier, we see return to a house Simone has just robbed to retrieve a tiny Chihuahua that has been cruelly shoved into a freezer. He ends up akin to the raging terrier we glimpse at the beginning – ferocious, out of control. The dogman of the title in more than one way.
On a more meta level, Garrone also wants us – the audience – to take a long, hard look at our relationship with revenge movies of which Hollywood – and elsewhere – has a seemingly endless supply. It’s easy to see how the final 10 minutes could be painted as triumphant. But if this is victory, it’s a ghastly, ugly, inhuman thing that is every bit as bleak as its setting.
Not all of it works quite so well. Locals fed-up with Simone’s bad behaviour pay out-of-town mobsters to kill him. The attempt, involving a gunman on a moped, ultimately fails and is never mentioned again. Worse still, Dogman’s loutish antagonist himself is so one dimensional he could get a job playing a bad guy in a superhero movie. And towards the end, when Marcello springs his revenge plot, you struggle to believe Simone would fail to see through it immediately. He’s a dumb mutt but not that dumb.