This article was co-written with Luke Hicks
In the first five minutes of J.-P. Valkeapää’s born-again BDSM wonder Dogs Don’t Wear Pants, we see an implied suicide, a fully nude woman, an open heart surgery, and a man’s small, floppy penis. This is long before we stumble into Mona’s (Krista Kosonen) subterranean red neon dungeon, which houses the lion’s share of the film’s more unsettling images: a woman face-down on the floor screaming for someone to “extinguish” the gooey candles on her back; a masked man on all fours trembling uncontrollably as Mona calmly and relentlessly whips him, as he paid her to; and a widower named Juha (Pekka Strang) gasping for air, every crevice of his clouded face sealed with the plastic bag cutting off his oxygen.
Not all films have to be for everyone. This may seem obvious, but who among us has not reached the enema confession scene in The Devils and realized the sanctity of movie night has been compromised? Booted up Audition only to lose your audience to the decapitating prowess of piano wire? Risked it all on the off chance that you can convert just one more person to the cult of The House That Jack Built?
When you fall in love with a film, your instinct is to share it with others. To pass on that “oh shit, this rules” feeling to as many people as possible. But pain tolerances vary. Not everyone leans forward in their seat during toenail removals or has the stomach for a good old-fashioned tooth-yank. This isn’t to say that discomfort doesn’t have its place in movies. But everyone’s line in the sand is different. So, when you love a film, a risky film, and it’s all you want to talk about, you must tread lightly.
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants won’t be the easiest film to convince your friends to watch, particularly since most people will likely miscategorize it immediately (understandably so, given a face-value plot summary). But as antithetical as it seems, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is underscored by a tender spirit that offers healing. This isn’t torture porn. Carnal, superficial pain isn’t what draws Juha back to Mona’s lair. It’s the emotional and psychological therapy that follows.
Juha’s been dead inside since his wife drowned years back, leaving him to care for their infant daughter on his own. Still, on paper, he’s doing just fine. A little emaciated, sure, but fine. Lead cardiothoracic surgeons are few and far between; he lives comfortably, his daughter loves him, and outside looking in, he’s ticking all the right boxes. But Juha is coasting, pitiful, inert, and unresponsive, tinkering with the innards of the human body as if they were as banal as the two dishes he washes every night. He’s miserable until he meets Mona.
In a brilliant bout of characterization, when she’s out of her dungeon, Mona works as a physical therapist. There’s a quiet implication that her day and night jobs aren’t all that dissimilar, that both are bred from a stern yet boundless hope for recovery in all forms. It’s as if she’s addicted to helping people, physically serving them in whatever way they need, be it daily stretching or daily cat-o-nine tails.
It would be ironic and unfair to instruct tentative viewers to “look past” Dogs Don’t Wear Pants’ more brutal bits. After all, fundamentally, this is a film about pain. The twist being that, for a film about pain, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. This is a story where self-discovery and self-destruction speak the same language. Where the liberating shift from numbness to feeling is made possible by the affirmation of hurt and grief rather than its dismissal. As a result, the film’s more deviant moments never really register as exploitative, let alone kinky. And there’s something exhilarating about this attitude: this enthusiastic and ultimately joyful vault into falling apart on purpose.
Juha’s pursuit of pain is simply a joy to watch. Even, and perhaps especially, when the consequences start piling up. His newfound reckless abandon almost costs him his job and destabilizes his relationship with his understandably concerned daughter. And yet you can’t help but root for Juha, who never pauses or breaks pace to consider the ramifications of his new predilection. There is no tentative toe-dipping; it’s a full-on swan dive. And watching someone double down on feeling something so assertively, doggedly, and to their own detriment is a profound experience.
It certainly helps when you have Michal Nejtek’s minimalist There Will Be Blood-esque score on your side. It’s the score Joker wishes it had. Nejtek’s essential contribution is found in the silence of his arrangement as prominently as the percussive violin plucks that break it. It’s hard to imagine how a movie that induces this many tears — of both the euphoric and devastating variety — would function without the emotional resonance of Nejtek’s work, which plays in harmony with every aspect of the film, especially the cinematography. The camera cuts from fluorescent light beams to ethereal underwater memories to intimate close-ups while the score weaves gracefully through it all.
Pietari Peltola’s luminous photography is impossible to ignore. At times, the frame’s pitch black neon cocktail is reminiscent of Robby Ryan’s work in Paris, Texas. Quite frankly, compliments for cinematography don’t get much better than that. But Peltola isn’t solely comparable to the greats. He possesses his own flair for originality, and even humor, with the camera. We’ll be lucky when the rest of the directors on the planet take note of him. After all, it’s his stunning cinematography, in tandem with Nejtek’s score, that draws implicit tenderness from what might otherwise be considered brutish.
Ultimately Dogs Don’t Wear Pants reaches far beyond the realm of trauma. It’s a warm humanization of alternative therapy as much as it is an endorsement of non-normative sexual expression as much as it is an affirmation of the palliative qualities of genuine human connection. It’s about finding the people you can truly be yourself around, a community that encourages you to flourish in your own skin and skips alongside you in the process. That Dogs Don’t Wear Pants never resorts to hokey measures to achieve such compassion is further proof: this is a very special film.
From the moment Juha gets a taste of the business end of Mona’s boot heel, it’s clear that Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is hurtling, heart-first into catharsis with blood on its lips and a smile on its face. The final scene of the film is one of the most radiant cinematic finales in recent memory: a Hi-NRG fuelled emotional release that’s interminably sweet and contagiously ecstatic. You can’t help but grin. You just can’t.
While Dogs Don’t Wear Pants isn’t a film everyone will want to watch, we’re over the moon that, at the very least, everyone will have the option to see it now that it’s streaming on Shudder. The strong-stomached will be treated to a film with a massive heart and a pain tolerance to match. As for the curious, we hope we’ve piqued your interest. Whenever you’re ready: the dungeon’s open.