Like a bargain-bin version of Antichrist, director Carles Torrens’s Pet stages the battle of the sexes as grisly psychological horror, a savage game that can only end in destruction. Unlike in Lars Von Trier’s film, which credited its main characters as simply He and She, the central couple here are at least given names, even if they’re still little more than gendered archetypes. Seth (Dominic Monaghan) is a sweet-natured but awkward attendant at a local animal shelter; Holly (Ksenia Solo) is a pretty waitress with dreams of being a writer. After a chance encounter on the bus, Seth becomes obsessed with Holly, first stalking her on Facebook, then out in the open, and finally kidnapping her and locking her in a cage beneath the animal shelter.
Up to this point, Pet plays as a clever, if not precisely executed, twist on any number of 1990s romcoms, which often confused creepy male obsession for adorable persistence. The symbolism of Seth treating Holly like his pet isn’t subtle, but there’s a blunt effectiveness to the image of a “nice guy” literally caging the woman he loves like a dog, pushing food into her pen, disciplining her for misbehavior, and treating her as if she owes him for his graciousness. But Jeremy Slater’s screenplay quickly loses this moral clarity as the plot twists pile up and the power balances shift. Even the titular metaphor loses its legibility as we discover more about Seth’s motives and Holly’s history.
Pet earns points for its gleefully nihilistic mix of gore and black humor, and the ingenuity by which it keeps one of its characters confined to a cage for so long. But for a film that’s about a psychological cat-and-mouse game, it’s divorced from any recognizable human psychology. While Monaghan and Solo do their best to ground their characters, Seth and Holly’s psychologies remain elastic, bound only by gender stereotypes. The little we learn about their pasts doesn’t illuminate them as people, existing only to move the plot forward. A muddle of incoherent gender politics and self-regarding cynicism, the film gets its jollies by watching a man and woman destroy each other, mistaking its own sadistic pleasure for deep insight into human relationships.