A skinhead’s need to belong causes him to commit the ultimate transgression in Mira Fornay’s coolly observational sophomore feature, “My Dog Killer.” Set in a spare Slovak countryside of long-entrenched ethnic tensions and right-wing ideology, the pic knows the difference between right and wrong yet trusts viewers to bring the correct subjectivity into play; Fornay (“Foxes”) maintains a nonjudgmental stance that goads brains more than hearts. This scrupulous distance will be offputting to some, though Rotterdam’s jury felt otherwise, and fest play is a certainty.
Fornay’s script doesn’t give anything away, engaging in an almost elliptical form of storytelling that forces auds to come to conclusions not spelled out in the dialogue. Marek (Adam Mihal) is first seen training his pit bull, Killer, to savage a hanging piece of rope; the young man’s pale round eyes register emptiness in turmoil, while his shaved pate, thin frame and tattooed neck proclaim him a skinhead.
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The region is depressed and Marek’s dad (Marian Kuruc) can only keep his small vineyard if he sells his other property. Before any sale, though, he’ll need the signature of co-owner and ex-wife Marika (Irena Bendova), who abandoned the family eight years earlier. Mom’s skipping out obviously contributed significantly to Marek’s retarded emotional development, and he’s none too pleased when forced to find her in town and bring her the contracts.
The press materials say this is when Marek learns he has a half-gypsy half-brother, Lukas (Libor Filo), though it’s unclear (perhaps due to subtitling issues?) whether he was aware of his sibling earlier. He definitely didn’t have to confront his feelings until now, when repeated and unwanted contact with this separate family creates a crisis after his skinhead pals discover he’s got a half-gypsy brother.
Fornay uses all non-pros, including skinheads from the region; while this isn’t a documentary, their very real presence adds a layer of authenticity. The same can be said for the locale; one wonders if a “no Roma allowed” sign at the diner is genuine (the scene, with Lukas tormented by bigoted teens, is one of the most wrenching to watch). Less obvious to non-locals will be the significance of Slovakian folk songs on the radio, suggesting a narrow nationalism further reinforced by a prominently placed portrait of fascist leader Jozef Tiso.
Racial hatred, simmering family tensions and a pit bull trained to attack sound like a recipe for heightened emotions, but Fornay rejects overt drama, preferring a tamped-down ambiguity as gray as her colorless skies. “My Dog Killer” is a difficult film to get inside, just as Marek’s is a difficult head to enter, yet Fornay’s gamble is deliberate, knowing better than to dehumanize the protag by reducing cause and effect to cliches.
Somehow, Mihal projects a disturbing lack of emotion that masks a debilitating confusion — there’s a sense that a decent education could have saved Marek, but even that’s failed him. This tension characterizes the entire film, not least thanks to the precise camerawork of d.p. Toma Sysel, who alternates between motion and stillness while keeping it all ultra-observational. Despite the sense of detachment, Fornay ensures that Lukas’ fate leaves a chilling mark.