The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival.
To his credit, Pet writer Jeremy Slater realizes that a film about a woman trapped in a dog cage probably isn’t most moviegoers’ idea of a good time — not that you’d know it at first. For about 50 minutes or so, we see dangerously awkward 30-something Seth (Dominic Monaghan) stalk Holly (Ksenia Solo), a high school crush who works at a local diner, around Los Angeles. After his initial attempts at asking her out fail miserably, he seemingly evolves (devolves?) from neckbeard to full-on maniac, abducting his unreciprocated object of affection and imprisoning her in a hidden section of the animal shelter where he works.
To say anything else plot-wise would ruin the film. Just know that there’s a twist for both Seth and Holly, one that could possibly elevate Pet beyond its torture-porn trappings to a mysterious study of infatuation, loneliness, and what the moderator at SXSW’s first premiere in the Midnighters category astutely referred to as “reverse Stockholm syndrome.” Simply put, there’s much more to both people than you’re led to believe.
If only the reversal wasn’t delivered with such unremarkable bluntness. Once Holly’s in her kennel, Pet becomes bogged down by flashbacks, ghosts/imaginary friends, and other ham-fisted devices that dump the surprises in the viewer’s lap instead of unveiling them through pathos and ambiguous performances. While Monaghan and Solo add their own tics to the archetypes of stalker and nice girl early on in the film, they each feel like completely different people once the movie switches gears. This suggests that all that came before was a facade for Seth and Holly rather than just another facet to their characters. That’s not the intent, of course — Slater very much wants both members of the twisted couple to be complicated — but the acting says otherwise. The performances and disappearance of narrative elegance don’t creep up on you as much as they hit you over the head with a cinderblock.
One could argue that such a huge shift has the potential to be jarring in all the right ways, but, in addition to rendering each character somewhat of a copout, the change also goes against the alluring precedent director Carles Torrens sets in the first half of the film. As Seth — his eyes childlike, his upper lip stretched — lurks around a refreshingly nondescript version of LA, Torrens and cinematographer Timothy A. Burton treat the camera much like their protagonist’s field of vision, peeking around the corner of graying alleyways and straining to see Holly over the heads of several bus passengers. However, these slow-burn promises get traded out with flat ferocity as the film progresses. I’m as much a gore-hound as the next horror fan, but the splatter has little impact once the characters’ complexity as human beings vanishes. As hard as Pet tries to be something different, it still feels like a film about a woman in a dog cage.