In recent years, the select group of AMPAS members who decide on the nominees for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars have strayed toward a mix of critical favorites, and "safe" traditional films. And even when they reached into slightly new territory - 2008's animated documentary Waltz with Bashir - they've ended up choosing a safer film (09's The Secret in Their Eyes over favorites The White Ribbon and A Prophet). It's circumstances like these that make me wonder how on earth they even let Dogtooth, Greece's (now nominated) submission, within five miles of the list of finalists, as it's one of the more unsettling films of 2010 (or any year).
Set somewhere within Greece, the film focuses on a nameless couple and their three nameless children, all of whom look to be in their late 20s/early 30s. And right from the beginning, it's clear that they're, um, different. The siblings listen to a tape that instructs them on the meaning of several words. For example, a "sea" is a type of chair, and a "telephone" is what one uses to sprinkle salt on food. In addition to their unique vocabularies, the children are also in constant competition with each other, performing endurance contests (such as holding their breath under water) to earn stickers. Clearly, the kids (and the family as a whole) are not all right.
And for much of the film, this is all director Yorgos Lanthimos gives us: examples of the family's weirdness as the parents terrorize their children into submission. Perhaps even more disturbingly, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou refrain from going overboard on all fronts (that is, aside from the sexual angle). There's no score to speak of, or any eerie sound effects, and the film is starkly shot, as if to make everything going on seem plain and ordinary. The effect is that the film becomes more disturbing after it's over, because Lanthimos doesn't play up the weirdness at every chance, nor does it stick out like a sore thumb. Save for a few scenes at the father's office, the household is all we know, and one becomes eerily accepting of what's going on.
However, this concept can only take the film so far. Even at a clean 90 minutes, it does tend to lag in the second half. After minutes and minutes of merely showing us the life that the family lives, the film tries to introduce a story of escape. But because the characterization has been limited to the weird and strict rules the children live by, there isn't much to go on, and the change one sibling goes through just sort of happens after one incident. Lanthimos also goes a bit overboard in what he shows when it comes to the sexual side of the characters. It's not quite pornographic, but it does verge on being indulgent and in slightly poor taste. And when the actual plot reaches its conclusion, the film goes out with too much of a whimper. I understand what the last shot is trying to say, but the timing and location feels a bit lightweight when it should be more suspenseful. To put it simply, if you're one of those people who hated the way the Coen brothers ended No Country for Old Men, then you'll likely hate this ending in equal measure.
Yet even with its flaws, Dogtooth remains a quietly effective, occasionally jarring piece of work. What it lacks in fully fleshed out characters, it makes up for in the quietness and restraint of its execution. And while it might not be entirely successful at accomplishing all of its thematic and story telling goals, it's an uncompromising vision of a seriously messed up family that will likely shake you up quite a bit when it cuts to the credits. Oh, and AMPAS members, it would make an inspired choice for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar *hiiiiiiiiiiiiiint*.