Monday, February 20, 2017

FCS ’17: Dogs

How do you keep 550 hectacres of strategically located land undeveloped for years, even during Romania’s Communist era? You have to be one bad cat, like Roman’s late grandfather, whom he hardly knew. Perhaps not surprisingly, the town’s terminally ill police chief and various low life thugs are less than welcoming when Roman takes possession of his property (with the intent to sell) in Bogdan Mirică’s Dogs (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

“Uncle Alecu’s” property comes with a cranky caretaker, a snarling guard dog ironically named “Police” and a drafty old farmhouse with a shotgun prominently displayed. Soon after his arrival Police the dog alerts him to two strange cars secretly meeting in the middle of Old Alecu’s barren scrub grass. A few days later, Roman and his sales agent Sebi Voicu interrupt another such nocturnal rendezvous. Rather ominously, Voicu’s car was discovered abandoned shortly thereafter.

Voicu’s disappearance is one of two cases Chief Hogas is trying to clear. The other involves a severed foot discovered floating in a nearby pond. Unfortunately, two serious complications have imposed artificial time constraints on Hogas. His precinct is imminently due to be replaced by a roving mobile unit and his body is fatally riddled with cancer. Before he goes, Hogas desperately hopes to take down his nemesis, Samir, the local drug trafficking kingpin.

Dogs could indeed be considered the Romanian No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water. It definitely has a contemporary western vibe, but it is still a Romanian film, so it should come as no surprise Dogs is a bit of a slow-starting slow-builder. Yet, Mirică organically develops the tension out of the moody, frontier-like setting. While the title is somewhat metaphorical, Police the junkyard dog still gets plenty of screen time. If you liked A Dog’s Purpose, you would probably be utterly horrified by Mirică’s Dogs, but it is still features some impressive canine screen work.

Dragos Bucur is actually a rather big fellow, but he manages to make Roman convincingly gawky and passive. Gheorghe Visu is quite salty and wry, playing Hogas much like a Romanian Jeff Bridges, except more emaciated. Constantin Cojocaru adds plenty of sinister local color as the caretaker, Epure, but Police’s constantly barking presence really makes the film.

Dogs steadily works towards some legit genre mayhem, while still staying true to its Romanian New Wave heritage. Mirică shows tremendous patience and a careful command of mise-en-scene, but it is still one of the more easily watchable Romanian films you are likely to see on the festival circuit. It really is a thriller and not just a film that inherits the category label, because it includes cops and guns. Recommended with enthusiasm for discriminating viewers, Dogs screens this Thursday night (2/23), as the conclusion of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.