The last couple years haven’t been the best professionally for Paul Schrader, with the public fiasco surrounding his movie The Canyons or his being fired from The Exorcist prequel. Regardless of whatever recent flaps he’s had, Schrader has a fairly secure legacy in cinema – that happens when you write an all-time classic like Taxi Driver. The past is the past and Schrader is back behind the camera with his latest film Dog Eat Dog, a manic crime thriller that revels in amoral debauchery. The characters and situations of Dog Eat Dog are ugly and depraved, which makes for a delightfully entertaining yet totally bonkers movie that is Schrader’s best work in years.
Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) are a trio of ex-cons trying to make their way in the world following their release from prison. There’s little in the way of legitimate work for these hardened convicts and they quickly return to a life of crime. With each of them looking at life in prison if they’re arrested again, the trio decides that they should be working towards bigger scores. Aided by their liaison El Greco (Schrader), the crew of criminals arrange to conduct a kidnapping for a mobster demanding repayment from a former associate. Before taking on this dangerous assignment, the three convicts agree that they’d rather go down together in a blaze of glory, like samurais, than face prison once again.
Perhaps the most shocking element of Dog Eat Dog is the fact that the film’s most manic performance belongs to Willem Dafoe and not Nicolas Cage. As the drug-addled Mad Dog, Dafoe’s character ingests large quantities of drugs and alcohol which brings his violent and unpredictable tendencies to the forefront. But there’s also a desperation to Mad Dog, and Dafoe brings all of these conflicting qualities to the character in a delirious performance. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage plays it cool throughout the film. He doesn’t really go off the rails in the traditional Cage sense, which is perfectly fitting for his role. It’s only towards the end when Cage reveals a hidden talent in imitating the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart that the wild man actor goes off in a truly unpredictable fashion.
As wild as Dafoe’s performance is, Schrader’s direction is equally demented. Dog Eat Dog features a crazy color palate that is often soaked in neon, though Schrader injects lengthy scenes in unsettling black and white as we get to better know the characters. The opening scene of the film features Dafoe’s Mad Dog soaking up an assortment of narcotics, but it’s the odd color scheme to the scene that really stands out, an array of white and pink soaked in neon lighting that concludes with a truly shocking moment of graphic violence. It does take a while to bring that opening scene into the whole context of the film, but it does establish the film’s brash visual style and the amoral violence that will permeate throughout the twisted comedy of errors from screenwriter Matthew Wilder’s adaptation of Edward Bunker’s novel.
There are no heroes in Dog Eat Dog. There are barely even good people in the film, and anyone of upstanding moral character are surely to become the victims of some heinous crime. The lacking moral compass of Dog Eat Dog isn’t a negative because the film is an ugly story of ugly people doing ugly things, and Schrader never implores the audience to root for these depraved dirtbags. Though the film is fairly obvious with how thing will end, presenting the audience with two possible outcomes, the twists and turns along the way are devilishly fun to behold in this manic, ultraviolent piece of crime fiction.
Dog Eat Dog
A demented and debauched piece of cinema, Dog Eat Dog is Paul Schrader’s amoral piece of ultraviolent criminality featuring a wonderfully bonkers performance from Willem Dafoe and Nicolas Cage playing it cool.