IMDB’s genre tags for Dogtooth are “Comedy” and “Drama.”
Believe me when I tell you with great certainty that it is neither of those things. It is one of the few truly mystifying, almost indescribable films that I’ve seen, and it will likely take a while to get its twisted, stilted puzzle out of my head.
Dogtooth, the Greek film directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, is about a family’s life in an isolated country estate. The Father (no one’s names are ever mentioned) works a dull job at a factory, the Mother stays home and watches their three teenaged/young adult children — two daughters and a son. In some sort of unexplained, morbidly fascinating experiment, the parents teach the children that they may never leave the confines of their walled-in grounds, under any circumstance, lest they perish from the evils and dangers that roam the outer world. They have no television reception (only a VCR to play home movies), no radio, or telephone. The world of the three children is the world that their parents have taught them. The children are all strangely childlike, yet lack a natural child’s curiosity — a trait that is strictly enforced by their parents.
It sounds like a twist on Shayamalan’s The Village, and that’s so very not accurate. Because the Parents are slowly creating monsters, in their own eerie, tragic fashion. The children spend their days doing chores ranging from vacuuming floors to grooming their parents. They communicate affection via hugs… and licking each other. They play games when they’re alone — games like “who can hold their fingers under scalding hot water for the longest” and “who will wake up first after we chloroform ourselves.”
And that’s only the beginning. The parents also teach the children random incorrect words — “sea” is a chair, and the salt shaker is “telephone.” It makes no sense, until you realize that the words that they’re substituting are all words representative of the outside world. The parents’ lives revolve around ensuring that the children never leave, telling them that they can only leave when they loose a “dogtooth,” or one of their canines, which will demonstrate that they are old enough. They claim that they had a sibling who left too early, and now desperately roams the wilderness outside alone, but never to return. In fact, their only contact with the outside world is the woman that Father drives to the house (blindfolded) and pays to have sex with the son.
It is a singularly unusual film, for so many reasons. Dogtooth is one of those films that I don’t even know if I can call “good.” It lacks many of the conventions of a normal film — the performances are universally wooden and monotone, with only hints of emotion from any of the characters. Even as Father administers an occasional savage beating to one of the children, expressions barely change — for either of them. The film is virtually without music, except for the piano or guitar playing of the Son. The camera work is absolutely riveting — it is, for almost the entire film, completely fixed. No tracking shots, no movement. It jumps from angle to angle, but any given shot is almost perfectly still. If someone walks out of its eye, then the camera simply continues to focus on the now-unoccupied space, as if you’re meant to watch the space itself, and not those that occupy it. It’s unsettling in many ways, ways that I find hard to describe.
Hell, the whole film is profoundly disconcerting, and that feeling is in and of itself peculiar, especially since for the majority of its duration, it feels like it lacks any sense of trajectory or purpose. It wanders almost aimlessly from vignette to vignette, with little sense of transition or connection. Instead, it plays like a series of random observations of this strangely awful, cult-like family. It’s only upon careful observation, and subtly over time, that one realizes that (unsurprisingly) each child is slowly manifesting signs of self-destruction, the product of the bizarre abuses doled out by the Parents, headed towards disaster.
It’s that inertia, interspersed with some shocking and disturbing scenes, that make the film such a jarring, visceral experience. You find yourself constantly wondering what the hell is going on (the parents’ motivations are only vaguely alluded to), and the lack of any sense of conventional narrative keeps the viewer consistently off-balance. But make no mistake — while Dogtooth is a deeply disturbing, intense, and twisted film — it’s not anything close to torture porn (though one scene with a cat will definitely put some people off). It doesn’t relish in violence or torture or suffering, and though the children are punished at times, it isn’t in any revolting, sick sense. And perhaps that’s what makes it all the more riveting to experience. It’s terrifying in a far more subtle, subversive way. Its horrifyingly dull sense of sexuality plays into that as well — the sex scenes, be they between Son and his de facto concubine, or between Father and Mother, are all sickly passionless and devoid of any sense of the erotic or affection. The film is replete with copious nudity and sex, some of it surprisingly explicit, but its total lack of titillation or sensuality make it all the more unnerving.
Dogtooth is one of the most creative, remarkable, and peculiar films I’ve ever seen, but the jury’s still out on whether or not that’s a good thing. I suppose that very sense of off-balanced anxiety that it creates makes it a success, but it’s not for everyone (though I must say — the ending is absolutely perfect). It’s risky, gripping film making unlike any other, but it also makes the viewer squeamish as hell and deeply unsettled. For those willing to endure it, it’s a fascinating, difficult, but ultimately thought-provoking experience.
Dogtooth is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch