One of the best and worst things that movies can do is have us project onto them what *we* would have done in this situation. In the best case scenario, it creates nearly endless empathy; in the worst, it’s Mark Wahlberg saying he would definitely have been able to prevent 9/11. For some viewers, watching a movie is indissociable from this idea — there are people who cannot bring themselves to like a movie because the characters act in ways they would not have or that they perceive to be objectively wrong. Matteo Garrone’s excellent Dogman explores what happens when the protagonist of what’s ostensibly a crime drama pointedly refuses to do the things that we expect from him. If you’re the kind of person who won’t sit through a movie where the main character doesn’t give the villain what’s coming to him because that’s what you feel you would do, strap in for an uncomfortable ride.
Marcello works as a dog groomer in a former seaside resort that looks all but bombed out — sandblasted, rusted through and nearly empty. His shop is barebones: the plaster is cracked, the wallpaper peeling, and yet there seems to be no shortage of dogs to groom within the sad vestiges of what was probably a beloved tourist destination once upon a time. The world of Matteo Garrone’s Dogman isn’t a particularly realistic one; it’s a pre-apocalyptic fable of economic depression that seems pulled from a bygone era. Marcello even has the look of a man from 100 years ago: big eyes, exaggerated features, thin, reedy voice. (He looks somewhere between a young Al Pacino and Buster Keaton.) Garrone has taken a character from the background of a 1950s Fellini movie and thrown him into a present world that he just isn’t suited for.
Marcello wouldn’t hurt a fly, and that’s why unsavory characters are drawn to him. The most unsavory of all characters is Simone, a psychotic former boxing champ and small-time hood who has seemingly bullied Marcello into becoming his coke dealer. (Marcello always has coke for Simone, but he doesn’t seem to supply anyone else — not even himself. He only does coke if prompted by Simone himself.) Simone terrorizes the whole town, routinely beating the shit out of shopkeepers and even smashing his head through a lotto terminal for the hell of it, but Marcello can never bring himself to stand up to him, which soon begins to destroy his life.
Torn between routinely getting emotionally and physically roughed up by Simone and actually risking getting killed by him, Marcello has taken the position that seems the easiest to him: passivity above all else. (It must be said that the meek Marcello is the father of a pre-teen girl, which means that he steps reluctantly and backwards into any criminal pursuit.) We want him to stand up to Simone and turn the tables on him because that’s what movies have taught us to expect from such a giant-killer relationship — but look around you. How many people really stand up for themselves in such a way? Isn’t it just easier to get used to it?
Vengeance is, at this point, the most worn-out theme in all of cinema. Because the desire for vengeance is so relatable and because the situations in which a person might be expected to exact vengeance are so widespread that the assumption is that anyone who exacts vengeance for any reason is compelling. Dogman isn’t about a man whose perfect life is destroyed, it’s about a man so concerned with doing the right thing that he’s left with no options. A worse movie with more prurient things on its mind would have focused on the pathetic and miserable nature of Marcello; it would have made him a figure worthy of pity rather than empathy.
The thing is that Dogman isn’t an action movie. It isn’t about immediate gratification and it isn’t even about the vicarious thrill of revenge. Films like this — low-key crime movies that steer away from the overt commercial aspects of, say, their American equivalent — aren’t that rare. Dogman’s biggest strength is its main character, a sweet, naive yet principled man who represents the thing we fear we’ll be when we do the right thing. Nothing he does really is “the right thing,” bleakly enough. He’s fucked either way. The emotionally fraught yin-and-yang relationship between him and the animalistic Simone suggests that some people are just going to be dealt a shit hand, and the way out of that predicament isn’t to do the opposite. Sometimes, it’s to do nothing at all. ■
Dogman opens in theatres on Friday, June 21.