Debuts that mix up directorial influences have a tendency to make a dramatic mess of things, but the tautness and focus of Dhogs means that Galician Andres Goteira skillfully avoids the issue. Goteira has clearly imbibed the influence of David Lynch, Michael Haneke, Taxi Driver, Straw Dogs and even Holy Motors to come up with this often authentically uncanny multi-parter about people being very beastly to one another. But despite its excessive fourth-wall gamesmanship and its unremitting pessimism, Dhogs manages to achieve an interestingly twisted perspective of its own and is thick with the kind of memorable atmospherics and visuals to suggest that Goteira will soon have more to show.
A taxi driver of utterly miserable visage (Antonio Duran “Morris”) drives through the night before picking up an away-from-home businessman, Ramon (Carlos Blanco), who tensely discusses family trivia with his wife before being dropped off at a hotel. At the bar, he meets Alex (Melania Cruz), who openly and surprisingly to the middle-aged Ramon suggests they have sex: “I like to make people feel uncomfortable,” she tells him, presumably mirroring the director’s own ambitions. As throughout much of the film, a lot of suspense builds around the scene, and the viewer will wonder whether Ramon is being set up for some schlockily unpleasant fate, but he is not. (Part of Goteira’s interest is in why the viewer should feel this.)
From here on in, however, the suspense, and there’s quite a bit, is followed by unpleasantness all the way — for Alex in particular, as she leaves the hotel and is followed through the streets by the sexually frustrated, swaggering young hardbody known in the credits as John Doe (Ivan Marcos). Things will end up far away from the Galician town where events have been playing out, by a pickup truck in the badlands of Almeria. They’ll feature a graphic rape, a bizarre mother/son team (Maria Costas and Suso Lopez) who run a rural gas station, a hard-bitten loner wearing a bunny mask (Miguel de Lira) and a dying dog. It’s grim, gritty and often tough to watch, with Goteira setting up the desert scenes as society’s misogynistic, hypocritical revenge on Alex for her sexual forwardness back at the start.
Weirdness, of the stripped-back variety, is in abundant supply — no more so than when our miserable taxista reappears to walk into an industrial warehouse and don women’s clothing to violently chop to pieces a side of meat. Add to all this the facts that the fourth wall is periodically broken and that the events we are watching are simultaneously being witnessed by an onscreen audience who sometimes break into spontaneous applause — and that they may indeed be a video game being randomly played by a small boy — and it’s clear that Dhogs (a compound of “dogs” and “hogs” to represent the uneasy mix of submissiveness and aggression that we humans share) is unspooling dangerously close to the limits of film school pretentiousness.
But the weirdness rarely feels over-the-top or gratuitous. Goteira handles the rhythm, and primarily the visuals, with expertise, making Dhogs a quietly unsettling experience: The sequence next to the pickup, with a variety of perspectives and focal lengths brought cleverly into play, goes some way towards making up for the film’s heavy-handed reminder that, as we already well know, we’re the passive screen recipients of terrible things a la Funny Games.
The bar conversation between Ramon and Alex is beautifully done, a wordily human exchange which is later exchanged for the terrible silences of non-communication, with Cruz digging deep to do terrific work in a role which calls upon her to explore radically opposing emotional poles. While (apart from Cruz) the other roles don’t stray far from stereotype, the performances are steeped in satisfying grunginess.
For the record, Dhogs is in the Galician language, further evidence of that region’s ability to supply unusual, skewed and interesting items, such as Ignacio Vilar’s A esmorga and Fernando Cortizo’s criminally underrated stop motion The Apostle.
Production companies: Gaita Filmes
Cast: Melania Cruz, Carlos Blanco, Ivan Marcos, Antonio Duran “Morris,” Miguel de Lira
Director-screenwriter: Andres Goteira
Executive producers: Adrian Folguiera, Laura Doval, Suso Lopez, Sara Horta, Andres Goteira
Director of photography: Lucia C. Pan
Art Director: Noelia Vilaboa
Editors: Juan Galinanes, Andres Goteiro
Composer: German Diaz
Sales: Stray Dogs