Dog Eat Dog
Directed by: Paul Schrader.
Written by: Matthew Wilder based on the novel by Edward Bunker.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Troy), Willem Dafoe (Mad Dog), Christopher Matthew Cook (Diesel), Omar J. Dorsey (Moon Man), Louisa Krause (Zoe), Melissa Bolona (Lina), Reynaldo Gallegos (Chepe), Chelcie Melton (Sheila), Bruce Reizen (Maurie), Ali Wasdovich (Melissa), Louis Perez (Mike Brennan), Magi Avila (Nanny), Paul Schrader (El Greco).
The opening scene of Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog is far and away the best part of the movie – mainly because it’s so weird, so strange and told completely without context, that you cannot help but be drawn in. In it, Willem Dafoe plays Mad Dog – completely high out of his mind on drugs (hence the crazy color scheme Schrader shoots in), embroiled in a domestic squabble with his girlfriend – who doesn’t want him there, but then relents – and then kicks him out again when she discovers he has been looking at internet porn. Mad Dog then lives up to his name, and murders not only his girlfriend but her teenage daughter, for no real reason. It’s all so strange, you cannot look away.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is nowhere near that entertaining – and the film is pretty much a grim slog from there on. It turns out that Mad Dog isn’t even the main character of this film – that’s Troy (Nicolas Cage), the leader of a trio of ex-cons including Mad Dog and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), out of jail for the first time in years, and trying to make a living. We see them doing nickel and dime stuff – robbing a drug dealer for example – before they are given a chance to earn some real. A gangster owes another gangster $4 million, and won’t pay. He is willing to give Troy and company $750K to kidnap his 1 year old son and hold him for ransom. Troy knows immediately this is a dumb idea – and so does Diesel. Mad Dog doesn’t know much of anything – he’s basically a puppy dog, as likely to like your face as bite you – but they agree to do it anyway. Why? Because, if they don’t, there isn’t a movie. Or perhaps because this is a Paul Schrader movie – and his characters often engage in missions they know aren’t likely to work out. The difference is in most of his films, there is a reason they do it anyway – here, not so much.
Schrader, of course, is the talented screenwriter – known for some of his work with Martin Scorsese – Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead for example, who has also had a fine directing career stretching back to the 1970s that touch on some of the same ground as his films with Scorsese, even if they are less well known. Schrader has always had more trouble getting his films made, and more fights with studios even when he does. For instance, he was replaced on the Exorcist prequel after he made the whole movie – and Renny Harlin was brought into re-shoot it. His version: Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was eventually released – and while it was better than what Harlin made, it wasn’t very good. Recently, he told everyone not see Dying of the Light (2014) – also starring Cage – because the film was taken away from him, re-edited, etc. His highly publicized film, The Canyons, with Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen (pre-rape allegations) didn’t do much to revitalize anyone’s career.
Dog Eat Dog won’t do that either. The film kind of feels like all those countless Tarantino clones we all suffered through for about 10 years after Pulp Fiction – as the film is trying to be funny, and perhaps a little bonkers and insane, but never gets there. The film’s treatment of women borders on misogynistic – they are basically seen as little more than sex objects – either uncaring or stupid (there is one exception – a woman Diesel talks into coming back to his room, but then doesn’t know what to do with). The plan, of course, goes completely awry – and the end devolves into violence, as we know it must. But while that is common for a Schrader film, I don’t think he ever really figures out the tone of the movie. From the get go, Willem Dafoe seems to have decided to be the batshit crazy one, which means Nicolas Cage tries to play his character as more normal – which hurts the end of the film, when all of a sudden, he’s going a little nuts again. Schrader excels as a downbeat tone and energy – an air of inevitability, than the films end where they must, and happy endings were never possible. The problem is he’s stuck trying to make a bonkers exploitation film, and doesn’t really know how to do it.