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Ben Austwick [Celluloid 12.09.08] movie review



Year: 2008
Release date: Unknown
Director: Carlos Moreno
Writer: Alonso Torres / Carlos Moreno
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ben Austwick
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

"Dog Eat Dog" is Columbian documentary maker Carlos Moreno's first feature, an unusual crime thriller that although owing a lot to its English language genre contemporaries manages to maintain a distinct flavor, one which isn't necessarily that of Latin American cinema as we know it. Themes of paranoia, individuality, chance and Voodoo witchcraft intertwine in unexpected ways, with tight direction and surprisingly assured performances from its amateur cast making for an impressive and original debut.


A basic, even cliched plot sees gangster Victor Peñaranda steal a bag of his boss's money in his Medallin fiefdom, and he is sent on a blind mission to Cali where fellow gangsters subtly probe him on the whereabouts of the money. During his stay, bizarre phone calls to the hotel he is staying in and glimpsed newspaper headlines of brutal chainsaw murders give a surreal, otherworldly feel to his exile.

In one of "Dog Eat Dog's" most interesting plot lines, the downtrodden gangster sent to watch over him in their cramped hotel room is subjected to Voodoo subterfuge by the distant boss. In a question and answer session after the screening director Carlos Moreno told us that the actor who played this part, Eusubio Benitez, along with most of the actors in "Dog Eat Dog" were amateurs auditioned in Columbia's violent second city, Cali. His performance is paranoid and lost, showing a vulnerability rare in hard-man roles. Better still is fellow gangster Sierra, a man higher up the pecking order who hides his psycopathy behind a constantly grinning and joking persona.

"Dog Eat Dog" is a very funny film, not in the English language crime thrillers' traditional devices of the one-liner and wisecracks, but in a more subtle language of facial expressions – sideways glances, grins and grimaces, often hysterical despite the subtlety. The slow but confident pace, which is engaging and tense, is unusual in a film of its type and gives lie to just how boring the frantic editing of recent thrillers has become. In "Dog Eats Dog" it is unobtrusive, seamlessly complimenting the tight camera work which so effectively portrays the claustrophobia of both Cali and gangster life.

In the Q&A after the show Moreno said the hand-held camera work and the flat, brown, urban tinge to the production were a result of his previous work as a documentary maker, but I can't help thinking films like the Bourne series were an influence – though in this case, suspension of disbelief is much more effective, the direction and editing taking a back seat to atmosphere and acting. Furthermore, the frenetic soundtrack of samba percussion and tinny Latin American pop blaring from car stereos beats Hollywood orchestral melodrama hands-down.

A perhaps more important aspect of "Dog Eat Dog" that sets it apart from other crime thrillers is its mature attitude to violence. It is never taken lightly, a realistic take on the subject by a documentary film maker from one of the most violent countries in the world. A scene where an innocent man is slaughtered for no reason, viewed through a distant telescope, presents murder in all its random horror. Later in the film, when the subterfuge and double-crossing come to their inevitable conclusion, the paroxysms of violence retain a brutality missing in similar sequences in English language cinema.

Unfortunately though, in the end the similarities are still there. The strange, surreal sub-plots that make "Dog Eat Dog" so interesting are tied up too neatly and too quickly at the end in typical Hollywood fashion. They become mere twists, rather than the ethereal, ambiguous tales they promised. Moreno explained afterwards that this was always his intention, that Voodoo isn't part of his experience of Columbia; that these strange, ambiguous story lines were a means to an end – to create a genre crime thriller that will compete with its English language contemporaries. This is a shame, because it promised so much more.

But this is just a disappointing ending – a mere fifth or even sixth of the film, a brief part of its running time tacked on to the end of a fascinating, original and confident piece of cinema. Moreno is a young director and this is his first feature. With so few flaws and so much to say in his debut, we can be sure of brilliant things to come.

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