Sunday, March 9, 2014

Gut-Punched by the Crime-Horror Tango: Tammi Sutton's ISLE OF DOGS

Everyone, at some point in their life, has to make a deal with the devil. Whether it is a mundane yet strangely soul damaging task at your day job or something far bigger and sinister, you cannot exist for any real length of time on this planet without having your inner happiness or personal code of ethics compromised. In Tammi Sutton's incredible 2011 dark crime film, ISLE OF DOGS, this damaged lesson of the human condition is explored in the messiest of ways.

ISLE OF DOGS centers around the beautiful Nadia (Barbara Nedeljakova), who is trying to escape her increasingly violent marriage via her lover, Riley (Edward Hogg). The husband in question, Darius (Andrew Howard) is one charismatically nasty piece of work. A British Gangster who succeeds with just enough cunning and psychosis to make him truly dangerous, with things getting even dicier when he discovers Nadia's infidelity. But that is only the beginning, as the timeline begins to grow into a briar patch of blood, emotion and the eternal question, how far can too far go? 

In a cinematic landscape filled with the same old beige toned retreads, ISLE OF DOGS is one vibrant, pulsing breath of fresh air. Gone are the one-two-three pastiche of arthritic genre cliché and in its place, is a film that is smart enough to respect your intelligence and visual enough to keep your eyes continually engaged. Nary a minute of lag and rhythmically paced without sacrificing the integrity of the story or your brain, director Sutton has crafted a dark gem with this film. Equally impressive is the intertwining of a Kray Brothers type breed of gangster film with giallo inspired underpinnings. These are two approaches that have no right to work together and yet are wholly seamless here.

The cast is equally great here, with the three main leads all turning in ridiculously solid performances. Both Hogg and Nedeljakova deliver as the attractive and haunted lovers, with the latter really capturing someone who is a mixture of bruised vulnerability and fight or flight steel-toed instinct. But it is Howard who makes the strongest impression as one of the most striking villains in recent memory. A character as heinous as Darius needs an actor that can deliver brutality in such a sadistically magnetic way that leaves you both horrified and compelled and with Howard, you get all of this and more. Whether it is him getting weepy over his dog that he just shot and killed or inviting his buddies to all but pull an implied train on his wife, this is a character you will not easily forget. All three actors are wonderful in ISLE OF DOGS, but Howard is definitely the one to keep an eye out for in the future.

 On a cinematically technical level, ISLE OF DOGS won me over with its attention to both color and music. Film being such a visual medium, it is depressing to see how many current day filmmakers almost defiantly refuse to emphasize color, shadows and lighting. This is something so cleanly rectified here, with enough color and stylistic set composition to make any Italian horror maestro happy. The first five minutes alone seals this. Music wise, Tim Polecat provides a nice moody yet twangy score that hooks you, along with everyone else attached to this film.

ISLE OF DOGS is a film that never compromises on revealing the darkness of the stained human condition that plagues its characters but yet refuses to revel in the gratuitous. It's too smart for the grue and glue that people have come to cynically expect from dark genre films and bless Tammi Sutton and company for that.
Special thanks to John Skipp for showing me this awesome film. Please check out his own brilliant piece on ISLE OF DOGS, along with a fab interview with director Sutton, over at his Nightmare Royale column at

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