EIFF Student Critics' Best of 2013: Day 3
As 2013 draws to a close, our EIFF Student Critics have selected their top films of the year – and we're publishing a review a day right here on the blog.
Today, Rebecca Bowen reviews My Dog Killer (Môj pes Killer), a Slovakian-Czech co-production which had its UK premiere at this year's Festival.
Deep in the Slovakian countryside a young man (Marek) fails to come to terms with his parents’ separation. Isolated from his friends, unprotected by his family and haunted by the latent violence of adolescence, we watch as Marek falls between the cracks of his community and resorts to an extreme act of self-preservation and revenge.
A lyrical prologue announces the pace and atmosphere; empty dawn-lit countryside is held in shot, cars pass off-screen, the hiss of their tyres at odds with the stillness of the image. Cut to a small village where early morning calm hushes the frosty landscape and dogs bark in the distance. Suddenly a skeletal skinhead looms before the camera and we meet Marek at the start of his day, goading his dog (Killer) into a vicious frenzy with a knotted rope. Feral barks accompany knotted jaw muscles as Killer rips into it, cheered on by his owner. When Marek tells his dog to stop it clings tighter, shakes the toy like a dead animal, refuses to relinquish its grip. The violence is unsettling but the camera lingers in the scene and we are given no respite.
Marek’s separated parents are caught in a disagreement over land and money; Marek mediates. He is also organising a party for the gang of thugs he hangs around with - they’re not his friends. Marek needs his mother’s signature on a lease for his father’s property, he also needs to collect booze for the party, but he is sick of his lack of control and his strained reticence threatens violent discontent.
The film’s palate is muted and a chill pervades the long, composed shots. Characters move through locations almost by chance and the camera captures just as many snatches of inconsequential life as plot-worthy moments of Marek’s. So we are drawn into his world by the same quotidian details which alienate him from it. The first time we meet his mother the camera waits with Marek outside the shop where she works. Several women, of all shapes and ages, exit before she does and each time we are encouraged to accept these strangers as protagonists only to dismiss them from the story as soon as they walk out of shot. In fact the film is pervaded with examples of the uncertainty of other peoples’ actions, highlighting Marek’s isolation and tying us to him through contrast. Killer is his sole source of shared companionship. And although intimacy is undermined by the dog’s dangerous power all of Marek’s relationships threaten to destroy him, so unconcealed violence is a relief.
Racism lies at the dark heart of Marek’s isolation and anger; stringent anti-Romany sentiments have made an outcast of his mother and the half-Romany son she bore after her split with his father. Marek’s friends ostracise him for the same crime; collateral damage which goes a long way in explaining his fraternal resentment. With touching adoration the boy follows his half-brother into what is essentially his own kidnapping. Although we witness the shame and frustration which leads Marek to the film’s violent denouement we do not follow him with our sympathies. He leaves his half-brother tied in Killer’s favoured rope and takes the booze to the party. When he returns the boy is dead.
Shockwaves are registered in the texture of the film itself. Before the camera was steady and composed, framing the rich mise en scene of each studied shot, suffused with a symmetry that made the visual language remarkably painterly. After we switch to handheld, and the solid reality we have grown accustomed to dissolves into the now pitch black night. Our field of vision jars, bouncing after Marek through the direct aftermath and into a new morning. It is not yet clear how he will process last night’s extreme incident, for a moment it seems as if his callous resolve is to ignore it, but as he begins to goad Killer with a knotted rope we realise that this is not a new morning but a return to yesterday’s. The cyclical jolt makes Marek a Prometheus figure and, as Killer’s viscous bark rips into the sudden dark of the cinema, we imagine him already reliving his guilt.
What was your top film of EIFF 2013? Let us know in the comments.