Hounds: Kamal Lazraq’s Moroccan crime drama is a striking parable of human degradation

After a kidnapping job goes sideways, an impoverished father and son desperately try to dispose of the body before morning in Kamal Lazraq’s powerfully unsentimental film.

Abdellatif Masstouri as Hassan in Hounds (2023)

Kamal Lazraq’s Hounds takes viewers on a tour of the Moroccan underworld over the course of one unlucky night. The Casablanca-born director’s first feature is not for the faint of heart – it begins in remarkably bleak fashion with the death of a dog. When crime boss Dib’s dog is killed in a fight with another gangster’s, he seeks revenge by commissioning the low-level criminal Hassan – a wiry sixtysomething and a seemingly lifelong loser – to kidnap the man who administered the final death blow. Hassan takes his son along with him, and the two bicker in a broken-down van Hassan has borrowed for the job. During the kidnapping, though, the intended victim is accidentally killed, and from here, things somehow get worse.

Lazraq’s film follows father and son step by step through the night as they attempt to dispose of the body. Every new plan fails, and through each failure, new problems arise. The scenario (and certain aesthetic choices) bring to mind the tail-light illuminated faces of Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta as they dispose of their own troublesome corpse in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990). It’s a familiar story, but the setting Lazraq evokes and the spare but well-placed gallows humour he employs, help to create something strikingly original. The specificity of the Moroccan setting feels close to the criminal seediness and particularity of Matteo Garrone’s Italy, and the Casablancan slums are rendered much like the Marseille of Jean-Claude Izzo’s trilogy of novels from the 1990s – a place of desperate hoodlums, where the laws of the Prophet exist uneasily alongside the rules of the street (“Be a man, it’s money or blood. May God guide you”). All of this is photographed and constructed with a gentle, handheld intimacy and the formal naturalism of the Dardennes.

Ayoub Elaid as Issam and Abdellatif Masstouri as Hassan in Hounds (2023)

In Hounds, the criminal and humanistic are two sides of the same coin, and this is most effectively communicated by the unforgettable faces (found through street casting) Lazraq chooses. Bathed in shadow and the yellow of streetlights hoodlums, gangsters and hustlers become sculptural marvels, features mapped with scars and deep lines that could supply endless stories of violence, tragedy, or both.

Beyond a simple crime story, Lazraq’s powerfully unsentimental film is, like the best gangster films of von Sternberg, Becker or Curtiz, a parable of human degradation. Characters repeatedly tell each other to ‘Be a man,’ but every step in pursuit of this empty sentiment only takes them further from the dignity they seek. The film seems to ask just what separates man from beast or, more specifically, men from dogs. Lazraq provides a simple answer; it’s what they will or won’t do.

Hounds will be in UK cinemas from 14 June.