DOG EAT DOG * * * 1 / 2
Starring Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Louisa Krause and Paul Schrader. Screenplay by Matthew Wilder. Directed by Paul Schrader.
Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog clears the room before the opening credits, beginning with the screen tinted hot-pink for a cocaine meltdown during which Willem Dafoe’s unhinged ex-con viciously slaughters his overweight, born-again Christian girlfriend and her bratty teenage daughter.
The scene is played for sicko laughs, with some of the garish instability of that Rodney Dangerfield sequence in Natural Born Killers and a similar, scattergun approach to social satire. (Their argument arises after Dafoe’s gal discovers he’s left her laptop open to an “Asian Teen Squirters” website.) The rest of the movie isn’t quite so in-your-face, but this is still an appropriate “abandon hope all ye who enter here” kick-off to some seriously unsavory proceedings. Consider yourselves warned.
Dog Eat Dog is an appallingly funny movie with a very bad attitude. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with its screenwriter.) The whole thing feels like an upraised middle finger, which it basically is. See, director Paul Schrader found himself locked out of the editing room on his last picture, 2014’s Dying Of The Light, which was re-edited, re-scored and even had most of the colors bleached out in an attempt by producers to shape it into a regular direct-to-video spy movie.
Since the film starred Nicolas Cage as a CIA agent with a degenerative form of dementia trying to hunt down the terminally ill terrorist he’s spent twenty years tracking before they both die of natural causes, you can probably guess that the effort to cut it into something generic was a wasted one and really not worth watching now. But if you squint your eyes you can still see glimmers of the classically Schrader-esque samurai suicide mission Dying Of The Light might’ve been.
In Hollywood these days, even filmmakers with resumes like Paul Schrader’s (he wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ and directed Blue Collar, American Gigolo and Auto Focus, to name just a few) are constantly being second-guessed and undercut by dumb money men, which I assume accounts for the rather enormous chip you’ll find on this particular movie’s shoulder. Schrader and Cage reteamed for Dog Eat Dog on the condition of complete creative autonomy. This movie is two guys doing whatever the fuck they want for an hour and a half, with results that range from exhilarating to exasperating, but mostly the former as far as I’m concerned.
Cage swaggers through the film talking like a hepcat auctioneer, except when he’s pretending to be Humphrey Bogart. Sometimes the movie is in black-and-white for no reason, other times neon colors scald the screen. The action is ramped up with silly cartoon sound effects, unless it’s supposed to be terrifying. Some of the scenes are so punchy and abrupt they seem to have ended before they’ve begun, while others linger uncomfortably for what feels like ages. The only thing you can take for granted about Dog Eat Dog is its wild inconsistency and arrhythmia, reinventing itself from one moment to the next. The seventy-year-old Schrader is even acting for the first time, playing a high-rolling fixer named “El Greco” and clearly having the time of his life.
Adapted by screenwriter Matthew Wilder from a 1997 novel by crime-fiction legend and real-life ex-con Eddie Bunker (who was played by Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time before he himself played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs) the film stars Cage, Dafoe and newcomer Christopher Michael Cook as three small-timers released after lengthy stretches and at a complete loss as to how to get by in the straight world. They’re all on their third strike, taking it as a given that they longer they hang around the more likely they’re going to end up back in the clink. So why not try to pull off one last job and retire?
A great joke in Dog Eat Dog is that these three nitwits understand what clichés they are, but lean into them anyway. They know full well nobody’s ever pulled off that one big score and gotten away clean, yet Dafoe optimistically muses that maybe we just never hear from the ones that did because they’re in Hawaii? He gives a marvelous dim-bulb performance here, so earnest in his self-help speak and sincere affections, yet never more than thirty-seconds away from killing everybody in the room. It’s a kick to watch Cage and Dafoe riff their way through a Wild At Heart mini-reunion, and I think we all remember how well things worked out for them back then.
The central kidnapping scheme turns into a wonderfully twisted riff on Raising Arizona, but true to this film’s peculiar form is forgotten almost as quickly as it’s botched. The universe of Dog Eat Dog is far too random and cruel to stay on the tracks of a typical noir. Wilder’s pungent screenplay instead delivers delightful diversions regarding Taylor Swift and a nearby bagel place, as well as some of this year’s most curious encounters with prostitutes.
What at first feels random and perhaps obnoxiously self-indulgent depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing (I’ll admit mine is quite high) does eventually fall in line with Schrader’s patented Calvinist austerity. Cage’s Bogie impression and the film’s gonzo flourishes are ultimately laid bare as the romantic delusions of common crook who saw too many movies. “I just wanted what I wanted,” he admits, too late. “The rest is verbiage.”