In the past week I’ve seen two very different, but equally controversial films that call to mind recent, all-pervasive tabloid issues: Greek director Giorgios Lanthimos’ chilling domestic horror Dogtooth which evokes the nightmarish, incestuous netherworld of Austrian rapist Joseph Fritzl, and British satirist Chris Morris’ long-awaited comedy Four Lions which takes as its basis the continued menace of homegrown suicide bombers. The success of both films lives and dies by the satisfactory creation and sustenance of their respective cinematic/imaginary worlds.
Most of the action in Dogtooth takes place in a spacious, yet utterly cut-off family household, in which the mother and father keep their two daughters and son captive in splendid (and very creepy) isolation. The father – mundane, measured, dominant – comes across like an X-rated version of Arrested Development’s uncle-from-hell J. Walter Weatherman, unsmilingly dishing out perverse lessons, and scrupulously maintaining the fictional world he has created for his brood (who have yet to be exposed to the outside world, despite being in their late teens/early 20s). Although she is complicit, the mother’s silent tears leave you in no doubt as to who the real monster of the piece is. Grotesque images are lingered on dispassionately; sexual, physical and psychological horrors pile up graphically, and are never commented upon nor judged, never questioned by any of the characters
The influence of Michael Haneke has been regularly invoked in writings on the film, and indeed, Dogtooth shares the cool, detached style and outbursts of shocking violence associated with the Austrian. However, where Dogtooth outperforms Haneke (and in particular his recent Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon), is in its lazer-sharp evocation of the absurd banality of abuses of control. The White Ribbon, whilst undoubtedly the work of a master craftsman, ultimately could be about a number of things; the coming rise of the Nazis, the German psyche, the nastiness of children… or the austere, moustache-twirling brilliance of Haneke. Part of my issue with The White Ribbon was the nagging image I had of Haneke, chuckling away to himself in a dastardly manner about how, yet again, he’d confounded his audience. I see Lanthimos as having no such such satisfaction, just a sober acknowledgement of his superb presentation of the conditions under which pure evil can so unquestioningly flourish. Dogtooth is deeply disturbing, even upsetting, but blackly funny at the same time. Genuine laughter in the dark – astonishingly brave performances from the actors, too.
Conversely, as intermittently funny and biting as it is, where Four Lions falls down is in the consistent maintenance of the world it sets up. Morris’ dazzling, disturbing past creations hit home with great force over short periods of time, but he seems to really struggle with sustaining this strength over feature length, and his first problem lies in the weak characterization of his principal cast. Morris has spoken of his research into homegrown (and otherwise) terrorist cells, and has been struck by how incompetent and ill-disciplined these would-be killers often were. However his characters in Four Lions, in the parlance of our times , are totally retarded. Their total lack of intellect renders them little more than cardboard cut-outs, and consequently Morris’ satire, sadly, of the sledgehammer variety.
Having watched yet another peerless episode of South Park the night before, I also couldn’t help but feel Four Lions would have worked better as an animation; in this context, South Park can make its satirical points, then disappear into a world of ludicrous, cartoonish fantasy without surrendering its potent thrust. Morris hamstrings himself in his pitifully undercooked representation of protagonist Omar’s home life (featuring none other than Eastenders’ Syed’s wife), and friendship with a security guard. These strands strain for a realism that is at odds with the cartoonish nature of the rest of the film and its characters. Furthermore, an early trip to Pakistan falls flat, feeling jarring and totally unconvincing. Ultimately, Four Lions feels like three or four separate films stapled together, and the closing attempts at profundity don’t have the impact they should have. All this said, there are still Morris-ian flashes of brilliance dotted throughout, and plenty of laughs to be had. I also have a strong suspicion the film would benefit from repeat viewings.
In this battle between dogs and lions, however, only one shows real teeth.