While it’s not among the festival’s official prizes, every year at Cannes, a group of film critics awards the “Palme Dog,” a citation honoring the best canine performance of the festival — a perfect fit for a movie like 2014’s “White God,” in which all the mutts of Budapest turn against their human masters, for example. By dint of its title alone, director Bogdan Mirică’s “Dogs” would seem the obvious choice for this year’s prize, though its bleak vision of evil lurking in the Romanian hinterlands, where it reveals that men are no better than animals, doesn’t do dog-lovers any favors.
An austere, yet technically accomplished cross between the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple” and Cannes sensation “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” — one that Romanian cinema devotees might call “Police, Noun” — Mirică’s debut feature belongs to a tradition of cynical, almost nihilistic crime thrillers in which a relatively petty motive can leave dozens lying in pools of their own blood. Though we experience the film through the eyes of a naïve outsider, Roman (Dragoș Bucur), who leaves the law and order of the city to tend to an inheritance issue, the first shot — in which flies buzz ominously as the camera tracks through nettles and weeds to a stagnant pool of water, the calm surface of which is disturbed first by bubbles and then the shocking appearance of a severed human foot — promises something far more sinister just beneath the surface of this rural grassland.
This unsettling moment may as well be Mirică’s answer to the iconic opening of “Blue Velvet,” in which David Lynch warns from the outset that he intends to pierce American suburbia’s white-picket veneer. Although “Dogs” takes place on an entirely different continent, it wields that same sinister sense of chipping away at whatever quaint, bucolic notion of rural Romania audiences may harbor. Roman’s grandfather — and local “godfather,” Alecu — has died, leaving behind 550 hectacres of land, land which was clearly acquired by illicit means (“Who says he bought it?” asks the property’s nearsighted, Igor-like caretaker) and which now serves little purpose, other than to dispose of corpses and insulate its owner from the law.
“Uncle Alecu led a busy life,” local police chief Hogas (Gheorghe Visu) tells Roman, leaning heavily on euphemism as he reveals the thinly-veiled secret that Alecu was the region’s reigning mobster. The notion of law enforcement in this remote outpost is essentially a joke — one Alecu took literally by naming his guard dog “Police.” The local police force consists of just Hogas and his deputy, and newspaper reports suggest that rather than strengthening small town stations, new policies will soon see them replaced by mobile police units. None of this encouraging for Roman’s chances on a frontier so barren and lawless, we might as well be watching a Western set a century earlier. Shot in heat-stricken widescreen and unadorned with music or other distractions, “Dogs” oozes tension as we slowly realize that Roman — and later his girlfriend (Raluca Aprodu), who makes the very bad decision of visiting him there — is completely vulnerable in his grandfather’s run-down, crudely-fenced-in little house.
Mirică reveals the menacing parties waiting to make their power play ever so slowly, finally bringing our attention around to boss-to-be Samir, embodied by Vlad Ivanov (appearing in three films at Cannes this year), that paradox of twinkly-eyed malice who played the abortion doctor in “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.” Ivanov has the capacity to appear friendly and ruthless at the same time, and when he strikes, it’s with cold, sociopathic ambivalence. Meanwhile, in the role of Roman, Bucur comes across as a hulking bull of a man, with a wide, square face and dark, close-set eyes. Physically, the bouncer-built actor looks like someone who could fend for himself in a tussle, which makes the character’s nervousness all the more unsettling. After dark, when Police starts barking at a couple of trespassing SUVs gathered just beyond the fence, both he and we have reason to be nervous, setting up a suspenseful late-night action scene in which shots are fired and headlights pierce the menacing gloom.
Although the director cut his teeth working in commercials and on more comedic material, he has no trouble orchestrating the breath-catching suspense of “Dogs,” depicting violent confrontations with a certain chilling detachment, then reveling in the gruesome result — whether it’s a long scene in which Hogas pries the disembodied foot from its shoe and prods it with a dinner fork or the repulsive aftermath of a police informant’s run-in with the blunt side of a hammer. But as the situation escalates, the film (which still bears a few shaggy, dead-end subplots from earlier drafts) becomes increasingly elliptical, to the point that the most crucial confrontations take place off-screen and the focus shifts from Roman to Hogas. In a twist on the old cliché, the half-corrupt police chief has long turned a blind eye to whatever was happening in his district, but now, on his last legs and coughing up blood, he’s finally grown a conscience. Roman’s out of his league in this godforsaken corner of Romania — and it’s clearly no country for old dogs either.