The first thing we see in Dogged is a lush green: a field of ripe wheat crops under a grey cloudy sky, all tinted in vivid, hyperreal colours. This image is a meaningful signature, for while Dogged is Richard Rowntree’s feature debut as a director, expanded from his 2015 short of the same name, he has served as greensman – one of cinema’s essential if concealed arts – on over 100 films and TV series.
In fact, the fecundity of crops will have more than one resonance in a film that clearly aligns itself to the pagan fertility rituals of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). The setting here is not Summerisle, but Farthing Island, accessible by road but, like the location in James Watkins’ The Woman In Black (2012), cut off from the mainland during hight tide. It is a liminal space, set apart, with its own rules and conventions, on the margins of society, and also a place with marked social divisions between the upper-middle-class long-term residents, and the camping hippies and vagrant ‘Woodsman’ (Tony Parkin) who are regarded by the villagers with contempt.
Student Sam (Sam Saunders) has returned for the funeral of young Megan, who fell from the cliffs under mysterious circumstances. Sam must contend with the constant disapproval of his father Alan (Philip Ridout), but is pleased at least to rekindle his furtive relationship with Rachel (Alysha Jebali), daughter of the island’s stern pastor David (Toby Wynn-Davies), whose own ‘challenging’ son Daniel (a genuinely creepy Nick Stopien) has also just returned to the island under something of a cloud. Yet as the day of the annual thanksgiving harvest feast draws near, Sam grows ever more paranoid that there is something very amiss on the island. The appearance of figures in animal masks, and the disappearance of Sam’s beloved grandmother from her cottage on the other side of the woods, only add to the boy’s suspicions, while evoking the creepy fairytale vibe of Little Red Riding Hood. Eventually he will uncover a cultic conspiracy that scapegoats others for the hypocrisy and sexual repression of the island’s pathetic would-be menfolk.
Text near the beginning of Dogged reveals a dictionary definition of the title (“Adj. having or showing tenacity…”) that is never quite borne out by the film itself. Sam is too anodyne and passive a character to show much doggedness, but Dogged plays out other associations of the word. In one scene, as Sam and Rachel have sex in a car, a person watches through the window in imitation of a ‘dogging’ scenario – and one of the masked figures wears a dog’s head.
As in The Wicker Man, the particular form of sacrificial worship being practised here is a relative innovation introduced by a manipulative, self-interested leader and merely dressed in the rites of the past. The film’s low budget at times shows, the performances are variable, and, as Sam drives, cycles and runs from one side of the island to the other in seemingly endless circles, it is a repetitive affair, at least half an hour longer than it needs to be – but as an exploration of these British Isles with their quaintly insular ways, their class boundaries, their chauvinism, their diabolical double standards, their toxically clubby patriarchal structures and their aggressive distrust of outsiders, it is also an uneasy allegory.
© Anton Bitel