On the mean streets of Casablanca dartingly navigated in “Hounds,” all life is shown to be casually disposable; an actual human body, however, is another matter. Taking place over one sleepless night of mounting misfortune in the Moroccan metropolis, writer-director Kamal Lazraq’s first feature is a trim, unsparing crime tale that pits social desperation against a nagging spiritual conscience. Its gig-economy gangsters may follow almost any grisly orders for a quick buck, but are equally bound to Muslim creeds and customs, glumly shrugging off any disparity between these two authorities.
Following an impoverished father-son duo as an ostensibly rote criminal errand goes bloodily awry, the film is briskly told and humidly atmospheric, though a little tonal variation wouldn’t have gone amiss amid an overriding air of hardscrabble, stomach-knotted discomfort. As its central crisis deepens and darkens, Lazraq’s script keeps teasing a gear-shift into mordant farce to which it never quite commits, leaving both the characters and the drama a bit stymied. Still, this is a notably punchy debut, both visceral and confidently cavalier in its depiction of everyday underworld brutality, with a sharp, streetlit sense of place — and just enough genre-film vigor to hook distributor interest after its Un Certain Regard premiere at Cannes.
It is no slight on the convincingly ragged, on-edge performances of the ensemble to say it’s immediately apparent that Lazraq and his casting director Amine Louadni have filled most of the roles with nonprofessionals: “Hounds” is rich in weathered, storied faces of the kind not typically found by the dozen in acting schools. Angular and twitchily expressive, leading man Abdellatif Masstouri was working as a street-food vendor when approached for the role of Hassan, a middle-aged, unemployed ne’er-do-well who can ill afford moral qualms when taking on dirty work for local crime lords. In this case it’s Dib (a truly menacing Abdellah Lebkiri, one of the few pros in the cast), a dog-fighting kingpin left with a score to settle after the gnarly, gnashing canine showdown that opens the film leaves his prize mutt dead.
Enlisted by Dib to kidnap and deliver the rival owner to him, Hassan in turn commissions his son Issam (Ayoub Elaïd) to assist. A wily, wary young man with greater street smarts than his more suggestible father, Issam is reluctant, but compelled by filial loyalty to tag along. His misgivings begin when the car they are to use for the mission turns up: Red is a bad-luck color, he insists, and the ensuing events, marked by red in a variety of ways, suggest he might be right. The pair manage to abduct and truss up their quarry, though with more violence on Hassan’s part than is strictly necessary; when the unfortunate man promptly dies in the trunk of the car, it’s left to them to dispose of the body by morning.
That’s more easily said than done in a city where even wastelands warrant turf wars: What follows is a panicked after-hours odyssey through a grimy assortment of junkyards, boatyards, backyards and abandoned gas stations, while their efforts to find the victim a suitably discreet resting place are further addled by engine trouble, police interference and further gang politics. A more interesting obstacle is that of Hassan’s own sense of religious obligation, as he insists, to Issam’s exasperation, that the body be washed and shrouded according to Islamic tradition before they dump it: a single shred of dignity where none else survives. This shot of purism amid spiraling human corruption is both poignant and perversely comic; later, a bungled attempt at a sea burial approaches genuine hilarity.
Such tonal diversions are always pulled back, however, to a default state of clenched, brooding threat. That’s present as much in the leads’ terse, fractious interplay as in the queasily handheld, sparsely illuminated lensing by Amine Berrada (also an asset to this year’s Cannes Competition entry “Banel & Adama”), who picks out the actors’ features from enveloping pools of shadow, sporadically highlighting them in saturated shades of flesh and blood before they melt back into darkness.