dog_eat_dog_3Year: 2016
Director(s): Paul Schrader
Writer(s): Edward Bunker, Matthew Wilder
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 93 mins

Synopsis: A crew of ex-cons are hired by a Cleveland mafioso to kidnap the baby of a rival mobster. (Source)

Dog Eat Dog lives up to its name, as in, it’s a film that eats you alive. The film begins with a real whopper of an intro, as Willem Dafoe’s impulsive character, Mad Dog, snorts coke, shoots heroin and spars verbally with a cold caller, all before going on a murderous rampage. It’s a punishingly surreal sequence that sets the stage and lets us know that director Paul Schrader is going straight for our guts. By design, this is an ugly film, one that plays out like a cracked-out, bad trip, while also serving as a damning vision of America rotting from the inside out. Schrader masks the film with a lot of laughs and energy, but the disturbing subtext featuring entitled characters who prey on the pain of others is impossible to ignore. As a trio of unlikeable ex-cons, Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook are great, showing us an unforgettable, self-imposed road to ruin that almost drives us crazy by association. So yes, Schrader’s latest film is totally crazy, but there’s a rhyme and rhythm to it that’s also absolutely fascinating.

The story focuses on three disparate misfits who don’t have anything but each other. Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) is pure, primal rage – he’s always on edge and relishes the idea of seeing blood flow out of anyone that disagrees with him. Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) is the muscle – he’s a man of few words but lets his actions and brute strength do the heavy lifting. When their defacto leader, Troy (Nicolas Cage), gets released from prison, it doesn’t take long for the trio to get back into the swing of things, propositioning a local mob boss named Grecco The Greek (Paul Schrader) for a few odd jobs. They soon realize, however, that they’ve been thinking too small. When a kidnapping gig falls into their laps, they’re hesitant, but are hopeful that it may be the big score they’ve been waiting for. Naturally, the crew is in way over their heads and things spiral out of control, testing their bond and determination as nothing goes according to plan.

Schrader’s film is an experience more than anything else, and the only rules, are that there are no rules. The plot plays out fast and loose, leaving multiple threads deliberately unresolved in favor of something that makes us feel the sickness and greed plaguing Schrader’s three madmen. Schrader’s anarchic approach is relentless, throwing everything at us from jarring, abstract compositions, smash cuts, loud music, visual glitches, and even a clever scene involving Troy’s best Bogart impersonation – which is as twisted as it is hilarious. As if that weren’t enough, the self-referential humor dares us to laugh against our will. Still, the exploitation and liberal dose of sleaze isn’t arbitrary, but a risky approach that shows off what Schrader does best. It all culminates in a portrait of marginalized screw-ups who are cheating the system in order to create their idea of paradise. The results may not be completely successful, but it’s a bold risk that makes the film stand out even before its gun-riddled, blaze-of-glory send off.

dog_eat_dog_1The performances match Schrader’s lunacy beat for beat. As Troy, Nicolas Cage is at the top of his game. He’s calm, cool and totally aloof as he navigates the crew’s shady dealings and tenuous bond. Cage is a great anchor to the film’s textured ideas and emotion, while still finding ways to play up its silliness and absurdity with deadpan ferocity. As Diesel, Christopher Matthew Cook gives his thug a unique slant. His performance finds a soft side to the character that is strictly at odds with how he uses violence to solve his problems – it’s a balance that’s tricky, but Cook sells it in such a genuine way. If there’s someone who steals the entire film, though, it’s Willem Dafoe as the unpredictable Mad Dog. We begin the film with him, and he’s the bright spot of every scene he’s in. There’s a weird sort of child-like innocence to a lot of his delivery, but he’s so brutal at the flick of a switch. We laugh at him most times because we can’t find an appropriate response to what he does or says, and Dafoe is completely committing to the role in a way that’s magnetic. Looking at it now, these are three very charismatic actors, which makes their bleak view on humanity that much more tragic.

Dog Eat Dog may be the most feel-bad film of the year, and I mean that in the best way. This is in no way something you watch for fun, but a bold, experimental effort from a director who totally commits, even if it doesn’t fully connect. Underneath the irreverence and mayhem, however, is something that gets under our skin. In the same way that Schrader’s characters are unable to get away from the crimes that have marked their past, his latest nightmare isn’t something we can easily shake.