There are plenty of uses for the idiom “like a dog,” most having to deal with displays of dominance and dehumanization by the dominant party in an unequal social relationship. Like Dogs dives into that, sure, by nature of its premise: A young woman named Lisa (Annabel Barrett) is kidnapped and drugged by masked men, only to find herself trapped in a 4×4 kennel stall with only a filthy dog bed for comfort and a warm corner in which to piss. She’s terrified and disoriented. The stall is in a dark, dilapidated room. Her captors enter with hazmat suits to feed her dog gruel once a day. Occasionally, the gruel is drugged with something psychotropic. Hours, days, weeks. It all blends together. Lisa is trapped like a dog. What will become of her?
If that was the sole nature of the film, I’d have some trouble finishing it. But Like Dogs isn’t a torture-porn movie about a young woman being mistreated by captors. It’s something entirely different, a brutal, nihilistic thriller about dark fantasies run amok. Lisa soon learns she’s not alone in her captivity. Adam (Ignacyo Matynia) starts to talk to her from down the hall. Soon their captors move them closer together, one stall at a time, and a relationship starts to bloom. Lisa fantasizes about them finally touching; he defers to her when it comes to potential escape plans. Things get much worse, though, as secrets are revealed and the two of them find themselves in very unexpected circumstances.
Like Dogs is filled to the brim with twists and gets more and more gonzo as it goes. Nothing about the initial premise is what it seems, and even the first set of reveals are then toppled by new information and increasingly fucked-up circumstances. Writer-director Randy Van Dyke executes the twists and turns perfectly, and when certain characters get their comeuppance … well, it’s impossible to describe, but goddamn. This isn’t just a movie about a woman being held captive. It’s a movie about toxic men, toxic women, toxic people that simply goes for broke throwing them into the right mixture for gory mayhem.
There are several great performances here, but Barrett utterly kills it as Lisa. Is she a final girl? Is she something more, something different, something darker? As the revelations start to stack up, Barrett’s depiction of her character changes in subtle ways but never becomes arch or grating. She never overdoes it, and that’s truly special in an indie horror film where performers frequently try to play bigger to match a piece’s heightened emotions. She’s so damn good, and I would watch a sequel with her character even if it was more depraved than this.
Displays of dominance are the heart of Like Dogs, and it’s thankfully never limited to traditional gendered expressions of the concept. That’s in line with the traditional usage of the idiom. But there’s one other way people often use “like a dog” and that is to describe a person willing to eat something nobody else would eat, to devour something repulsive and distasteful. Like this movie. It is, at times, repulsive. It is astounding. It is, frankly, one of the most gleefully repellent single-set horror films I’ve watched in a long time. I ate it up like a dog and I’d go back for seconds.