Imagine a world where everything you knew came exclusively from two people. Your entire life spent confined within the outer walls of your home and yard, never allowed to leave, never allowed to interact with the world outside. The grandfather you’ve never met speaks to you in song from the record player. The brother you don’t remember exists silently on the other side of the ten-foot-tall fence where he lives in constant fear of the most dangerous animal alive… house cats. And your mother is pregnant with twin girls and a dog.
Welcome to Dogtooth.
Two girls and a boy, siblings in their late teens or early twenties, sit together in their underwear. Their mother’s voice plays on an audio tape giving the day’s vocabulary lesson teaching them that “sea” means a leather armchair and “motorway” means a very strong wind. Class over, the three begin a game to see who can hold their fingers in scalding hot water the longest. Soon father arrives with a blindfolded woman in the car. Her name is Christina, and after removing the blindfold and greeting the family she takes the boy into his room where the two silently strip down before she works him to a frothy but emotionless lather with her hands and lady parts. Task completed, she drinks some juice with the sisters, poses for the family video camera, gets paid, and is driven home.
The odd and idiosyncratic behaviors continue involving salt shakers, fish in the pool, planes that fall from the sky, and more, but soon their rigidly structured world begins to show cracks. Christina has begun sharing outside videotapes with one of the sisters as well as encouraging her to perform cunnilingus in exchange for a fancy headband (a trick that works in the real world too), but when the parents learn of the infractions between the outsider and the children a violent and bloody path is charted towards an unavoidable denouement.
To give more specific details of the behaviors and happenings in Dogtooth would be to rob the viewer of some of the film’s curious power. It’s not a matter of twists or surprises, you’ll find none here, but instead it’s a matter of immersion. The film may take place in a home like most others, but even as the physical surroundings are typical and banal the movie creates an otherworldly atmosphere through the actions and the flat-toned, almost robotic, voices the actors apply to the dialogue. The father’s management job at a nearby factory is as non-descript as the label-less water bottles and products that fill his home. And while styles and color-schemes may imply we’re in the seventies a small cell phone tells us different.
The film works as a straight (well, effed up) family drama, but it’s quite obviously open to a few broader interpretations too. The movie can be made metaphor for several aspects of society. From the dangers of home schooling to the power of fundamentalism, the results of Stockholm Syndrome to the loose definitions of child abuse. The clearest analogy and intent comes when the father visits a dog trainer where the lessons of pet ownership are reiterated. And while the children engage in sexual interplay it’s done in a joyless and functional way. There’s no awareness of the emotions meant to be behind it, and even the parents seem to engage in it for purely pragmatic reasons.
Director and co-writer Giorgos Lanthimos is so precise with his world-building and implication of insular societies that the father’s interactions outside the home seem somewhat false at times. The father meets three people including a meeting with a co-worker, talks with Christina, and a visit with the dog trainer. The family’s two-dimensional speech patterns that highlight them as unique and self-created bleed over into these outsiders. The distinction between the man’s tightly controlled family blends into those he has no control over, and the overall effect is lessened.
“Do you know what dad will do if he finds out I lick your keyboard?”
That question means absolutely nothing on its own, but in this world it speaks legion about the family’s patriarchal structure and the double-edged sword of fear and ignorance used to keep the children in line. It’s also very funny in a blackly comic way. Even as static cameras and the lack of a score threaten to drag down the proceedings the performances, addicting and odd dialogue, and just plain weirdness of it all continue to hold the viewer’s attention long after the final frame fades to black.
The Upside: Oddly unsettling; darkly humorous; disturbingly original; strong and intentional acting
The Downside: Deliberately slow pacing and static camera limit re-watchability; inconsistent outside world
On the Side: Asking a female band-geek if you can lick her keyboard is a surprisingly ineffective come-on line.