The Greek thriller “Dogtooth” has an original premise that should pique interest for the sake of its ingenuity alone, but the major accomplishment of director Yorgos Lanthimos’s Orwellian story emerges from a careful navigation of moods. Few movies convey such a deeply unnerving atmosphere in nearly every scene while simultaneously capitalizing on an absurd black comic sensibility. Ostensibly designed as bizarre commentary on suburban control, “Dogtooth” blends satire with psychological dread.
Set in a bland household alternately defined by boredom and claustrophobia, Lanthimos’s script (with co-writer Efthimis Fillippou) centers around a family of nameless characters mysteriously engaged in abnormal routines. The dictatorial father (Christos Stergioglou) and strangely distant mother (Michelle Valley) force their three teenage children to occupy themselves with an endless series of games that serve little purpose other than to distract them from contemplating the outside world. The parents manage their offspring with a mixture of homegrown propaganda and brutal prison tactics. When the son (Hristos Passalis) hurls rocks over the backyard fence, the main boundary of his daily reality, he’s forced to hold Listerine in his mouth until it burns.
Their entire lives are seemingly defined by the lies their parents feed them: Having experienced nothing beyond the driveway, the youth believe they can only leave the house within the safety of the car. They eagerly await the coming-of-age experience that will arrive once one of their “dogtooths” drop. They think passing airplanes are life-size beings, so the parents leave toy planes in the yard as if they had “fallen” to earth. Even their language has been distorted by some undefined logic of limited knowledge: when one of the daughters asks the mother to pass the telephone at the dinner table, she hands her the salt.
Lanthimos’s patient approach makes for a slow immersion in the systematic lifestyle of this grotesquely abnormal clan, but he strays from providing too many answers. It’s clear that the father works at a factory where he hides his twisted parenting tactics from co-workers, but his motives never fully reveal themselves.
The matter-of-fact manner in which “Dogtooth” slowly builds to a violent climax forces confusion on the viewer to the point where it becomes easier to simply accept the lack of explanation and laugh at the freakshow of distorted truths that the parents tell their clueless kids. When the father reveals to the children that their pregnant mother “will give birth to two children and a dog,” the moment inspires nervous laughter. Lanthimos blends pity for the subjects of this inexplicable social experiment with the fear that, at some point, their bubble has to burst.
The enigma grows deeper as we witness the parents deal with damage control. As they whisper frantically in the kitchen (“appearance is everything”), “Dogtooth” reaches a heightened level of eeriness, stemming from our inability to know the details of their agenda while still experiencing the demented results. “You can’t trust anyone anymore,” the father says after learning that a security guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) whom he pays to have sex with his son has secretly blackmailed his daughters.
Whether he harbors unspoken values or merely fears isolation, there’s no doubt that the man of the house has a flair for creativity when it comes to constructing his family’s life. Evening entertainment includes viewing home videos they’ve watched so many times they can recite lines of dialogue by heart. Recordings of the children’s “grandfather” singing praises for his family actually amount to classic hits by Frank Sinatra.
The idea of a distorted childhood engineered by corrupt adults has been thoroughly explored in literature, most notably Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” But where the dystopia depicted in that 1993 novel contained a sci-fi hook, “Dogtooth” derives much of its power from the subtleties of the performances. As one of the children grows skeptical of their limitations, enlightenment arrives as if it were an innate impulse to escape the nest. Ending abruptly with no true escape from the morbid drama, “Dogtooth” rests on the conclusion that nothing can stop the onslaught of teenage rebellion.