At its best, “Dogs” feels like a Romanian riff on “No Country for Old Men.” At its worst, Bogdan Mirică’s severe — and severely derivative — debut feature feels more like a literal adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel that got mangled in translation. An unremarkable addition to the sub-genre of movies that open on a severed human limb (“Yojimbo” and “Blue Velvet” have nothing to fear), “Dogs” opens with an endless long take that slowly grazes along the surface of a swamp before landing on the gnarly sight of a disembodied foot that’s cut off at the ankle and lodged into a shoe. It’s a striking image, but one that’s as isolated from the film’s plot as the foot is from the body that grew it.
Mirică clearly isn’t big on connective tissue. On the contrary, he’d rather cobble together an entire milieu from the morbid details that have been scattered around it — nothing in “Dogs” is as viscerally clear as the impression that the entire Romanian countryside is one giant crime scene. Unfortunately for the film’s hero, he has to learn that the hard way.
Roman (Dragos Bucur) is introduced as he makes his way to a remote swath of farmland near the Ukrainian border. Slowly, through a series of terse conversations with a local notary, we are made to understand that he has inherited 550 hectares of desolate landscape from his late grandfather, Alecu, who may — or may not! — have fertilized the sprawling property with all sorts of bloody money (okay, okay, he totally did). It’s not especially reassuring that Alecu has also bequeathed his grandson with a nightmare-sized German shepherd named “Police,” which could be construed as a sniggering “fuck you” from the late owner to the local authorities who were either powerless to stop him or at the mercy of his command. As if that wasn’t enough to convince Roman to sell the land as soon as possible, he’s warned to bring the animal with him whenever he leaves the house. “People bite, alone dogs,” one of the locals ominously intones.
But there is an actual police presence in the area, and Mirică abruptly cuts to them as soon as Roman’s story begins to achieve any momentum. Hogas (Gheorghe Visu), essentially this film’s Tommy Lee Jones equivalent, is a haggard old cop whose history of corruption has begun to manifest as a terminal cancer. Adding insult to injury, someone just drove by the office to give him a dismembered foot. Given that “Dogs” attempts to bridge the gap between the patience of the Romanian New Wave and the gallows humor of the Coen brothers (and their myriad inspirations), Mirică naturally devotes a static, five-minute take to the sight of Hogas finishing his dinner, plopping the foot on his plate and using a kitchen knife to peel the rotted extremity out of the shoe in which it’s been entombed.
Finally, there’s Samir, a feral and ambitious lieutenant from Alecu’s operation whose true savagery only bleeds through over time. Played by Vlad Ivanov (who many viewers will never be able to forget as the abortion doctor from “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”), Samir is a salt of the earth type who enjoys having terse and intimidating conversations during which he gets to say things like “I’m afraid of God, but he’s afraid of me, too.” Anton Chigurh is not impressed.
What these characters have to do with one another is ultimately pretty simple, but Mirică treats the most basic information about their respective predicaments and desire as though it were privileged information. All the same, the dark energies that percolate around Roman’s new house are palpable from the start, and it’s clear that the city slicker from Bucharest has stepped into the thick of an ongoing battle between good and evil. Once upon a time, a man may not have felt the need to run fences inside his own land just to fend off intruders. A moral rot has seeped into the soil, and the violence that enabled Alecu to cast such a wide shadow has begun to take root in the ground — Roman can feel it, like a dog sniffing out an earthquake.
“Dogs” doesn’t explicitly namecheck any particular developments in Romanian history; much like McCarthy, Mirică’s grave, existential concerns extend beyond the pettiness of politics. Though the film takes the occasional snipe at the country’s economic disparity (in Samir’s words: “We wrestle, we kill… if we’re not educated, we get bored. What can we do?”), Mirică is attempting to sketch a broader, more spiritual sense of decay. And while his elliptical approach to storytelling initially makes it difficult to resist the primordial pull of this slow-burn thriller, the obstinance of his plotting reveals a frustrating hollowness as the film unfolds. Boasting a natural flair for composition and a steely formal rigor that should serve him well in the future, Mirică is a raw talent. But the growing depravity that defines his first film is like a precisely measured pot of boiling water that’s given nothing to cook. Comprised of the leftover scraps from other, better movies, “Dogs” is all bark but no bite.
“Dogs” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.