Wrong plan

The 43-year-old Romanian director Bogdan Mirică's impressive feature film debut Dogs (Câini) opened in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes 2016 and came away with the FIPRESCI Prize. The action takes place near Tulcea, in an area of the Danube sector of the Romania–Ukraine border where groups of smugglers make the law - their activity there described as an "unspecified" and "sordid" business by Jonathan Romney in his appreciative review in Film Comment, the highlight ("both surprise and revelation") of his report ("Romania Redux") that the Romanian film renaissance that started in 2005 with Cristi Puiu's Death of Mr. Lazarescu and had faltered a bit, is solidly back on track.

Dogs, Romney wrote, was one of several signs Romanian cinema is still (or again) vital and one of the few films of a Cannes that was satisfying but not astonishing, except for Dogs. It is impressive, and it will surprise, shock, and jolt you more than once. The feeling of being in the hands of an emerging master will hopefully be familiar to you, but the details will be fresh.

Mirică's feature debut is the kind you call "assured." It's also been described as "deliberate" - it has a slow, inexorable quality throughout - and reminiscent of the Coen brothers. Dogs has something of the raw, brutal feel of the Coens' debut Blood Simple, though with more of the scary and less of the humorous. No Country for Old Men has been mentioned, and Mirica has said he admires Cormac McCarthy, which says a lot. The assurance brings the pleasure of a young prodigy who sits down at the keyboard and immediately takes command, right from the slow backward pan over landscape to the slimy water in which something big and undefined and sickening gurgles up. It turns out later to be a severed human foot, in a sock, in a boot.

Everyone likes (if that's the word) the sequence where an older cop called Hogas (Gheorghe Visu), central to the action, lean and spry but it turns out deeply ill, slowly and painstakingly unpacks this foot and examines it, using as a tool only a fork with which he has just eaten dinner. You watch and the pace is so steady there's no time to be aghast.

At the center of the varied gathering of personalities, in which a majority are unsavory and brutish, is a strapping young man from the big city of Bucharest, Roman (Dragos Bucur of the 2009 Police, Adjective), unconnected to them, who has come to claim a vast, desolate tract, 550 hectares (over thirteen hundred acres) of land his granddad Alecu has left him. He knows nothing about it, apparently, and he plans to sell it. It's going to emerge that the brawny, sometimes portly crew that worked for his uncle, including somebody called Wrench, another called Popica (Ciprian Mistreanu), and their leader Samir (the skillfully menacing Vlad Ivanov, the cast virtuoso), intend to keep the land and go on doing whatever they were doing just as before. The land existed to mask or surround their nefarious activities. They need it.

These are facts that emerge, but they are never quite accepted by Roman and it is a bit misleading to announce them. What counts more is the style, which is content in itself. You notice dogs were mentioned? There is really just one, scruffy, aggressive, perpetually agitated and hostile, on the land. Its name? Police. There is also talk of wild boars, and there will be a large, rabid one. Simply the walls of the rudimentary house, the clanging trapdoors outside leading to the cellar, are characters, aggressive ones, and so is the score, which comes in just when it is needed to remind us not to relax. All this gives the kind of keen pleasure in watching that you get with a director in full control and having a good time.

The important matter is the encounters. There is a man, Voicu, who comes to help Roman with sale of the land, who appears briefly, and disappears in very dubious circumstances, so much talked about afterward one begins to wonder if he was ever really there. The police chief Hogas comes and goes, notably sitting down to chat with Roman and tell him the tale of a man who keeps shooting a lion and then, when all is silent, slips inside the wood and is seized by the lion and devoured. The whole film is like a short story of the haunting, relentlessly cold kind Paul Bowles told so well about Morocco, of innocent outsiders in a hostile land who come to very bad ends.

If it sounds like this is a lot of atmosphere and not much action, worry not: there is plenty of action. On the way to it, though, and what's the film's best sequence, is the one where Samir and his men talk and drink with Roman, each with his own unsavory looking bottle, Samir's words slowly trapping Roman in a web of macho menace.

There are two flaws I noticed. One vague one is that it's not entirely convincing that the group of bad guys have actual gangster jobs, and if not, what they can be doing here. The other is that occasionally one can see too well where the action in a specific moment is going, as when Roman gets in his car to leave and you immediately know he's going to change his mind. You won't necessarily know at a certain point, though, what someone is going to do with a hammer. Did you know rural Romanian gangsters keep hammers in their glove compartments? This is a stunning debut, nasty and distinctive, an art film that's also a thriller.

Dogs/Câini, 104 mins., debuted at Cannes 2016 in the Un Certain Regard section winning the FIPRESCI award; it was shown at many other international festivals including Rotterdam and Film Comment Selects. It opens in US theatres and virtual cinemas Sept. 10, 2021.