At TIFF: Dogtooth
Dogtooth is a delightfully twisted little fable from Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos, with all the markings of a cult classic. Alternating between the banal, the hilarious and the downright horrifying, it's the tale of three young adult children, cut off from all civilization by their psychotically controlling father (Christos Stergioglou, reminiscent of Dan Hedaya) and their passive accomplice mother. The family passes their long days in a rural Athenian suburb -- a landscape interchangeable with Southern California's -- in a modern ranch home with a sparkling swimming pool and meticulously tended yard. Surrounding the compound, however, is a twelve-foot fence from which only dad is ever permitted to emerge for his work as a factory manager.
At first we are disoriented, as the brother and two sisters (they are in their late teens, and refer to themselves only as "him," the "elder," and the "younger") listen to audio tapes offering completely arbitrary definitions of words that might have trickled in from the outside world. So a carbine becomes a "beautiful white bird," the sea is a "large armchair." After home schooling, the children are left to pass the time with leisure activities; when their parents aren't overseeing a game of Blind Man's Bluff, they'll frequently devise creative new ways to injure themselves. The most exciting event of any given day is the passing of a plane overhead, followed by mom sneakily lobbing a toy replica into the yard and telling the kids it's fallen out of the sky.
Their hellish Eden is turned upside-down when the father drives in a blindfolded young woman, a security guard from his factory, to have sex with his son. The character, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), may exist on the outside world, but seems instantly at ease with the family's Twilight Zone energy. After they do the deed -- which plays itself out with all the awkwardness one might expect of a modern caveboy losing his virginity -- Christina acquaints herself with the two daughters, who seem to interest her more. On a return visit, she tempts them with gifts in exchange for sexual favors. That leads to one of them getting her hands on two video rentals -- I won't say which, but suffice it to say that Christina is a fan of '70s blockbuster American cinema -- and when her sociopathic father is made aware of the breach, it sets in motion a series of darkly violent acts of retribution.
On the surface, the film might feel like a timely if opportunistic riff on the public fascination with nightmarish captivity stories like the Jaycee Dugard and Elisabeth Fritzl cases. But Lanthimos elevates the material far above the mere exploitative, constructing a uniquely surreal yet oddly believable alternate universe amidst that Lynchian jungle of menace, the suburban backyard. Much of that credit goes to the cast as well, who seem blindly devoted to executing Lanthimos's vision at any cost, whether that involves explicit sex acts (yes, you see an erection) or just the general, holy-sh*t-this-is-actually-happening cinematic insanity of a cold-blooded kittycide or deeply unhinged birthday party dance recital -- both of which count as two of my favorite scenes in any film this year.