Marcello (Fonte) is a dog groomer eking out a living at the edge of an unnamed Italian town. A shifty, diminutive individual who is dwarfed by the attack dogs he treats, Marcello isn’t respected in this town of lowlifes and criminals. Marcello admires, or fears, towering local bruiser Simone (Pesce) whom he sells cocaine to, which pays for scuba diving holidays Marcello enjoys with his young daughter (Calabria). But when Simone forces the reluctant Marcello into yet another situation Marcello finally snaps and plans his revenge…
The passive protagonist is a screenwriting no-no but director Garrone ('Reality', 'Gomorrah') puts paid to that in this engrossing crime drama. Marcello doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t instigate the plot or try to change his life. What he does try to do is be everyone’s friend, appeasing anyone who crosses his path despite their impossible demands. He allows Simone to run up quite a debt without any hope of reimbursement and can only plead for decency when Simone uses cocaine in front of his daughter. At one point he’s bullied into being a wheelman for a minor robbery and is forced to use his own van. He isn’t even given a taste of the swag. Marcello is almost childlike: one scene has him involved in a conversation involving local criminals and his inquisitive face shows little understanding of what’s being planned or why. It’s only until the third act, which has echoes of Poe’s 'The Cask of Amontillado', that Marcello, using Simone’s words, ‘grows a pair’.
And yet he remains a likeable and sympathetic character: he cares deeply for the dogs in his care, risking his life to save one, and his love for his daughter comes across strongly in the few scenes they have together. While he might be malleable he’s no fool – there’s an emotional intelligence behind his goofy grin. Most of this hard work is put in by Fonte who turns what could have easily being an unlikeable character into a tragic figure. Pesce meanwhile turns in an impressive turn as the heartless thug who still yearns for his mother’s approval.
Garrone works to cast a dark cloud over proceedings. The setting is almost dystopian with the town looking like it was a one-time bustling summer destination but one that no one has holidayed in for years. Buildings are derelict, the playground waterlogged, the beach overrun with marram grass, and the skies are always, always grey. It’s an underpopulated, seedy place with only Simone’s motorbike puncturing the silence.
A slow burner but even in its quiet moments, 'Dogman' has the power to startle.