Paul Schrader has always been a bit of a maverick. From his early days in Hollywood writing Taxi Driver to writing and directing Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters — a film that to this day remains one the most boldest and ambitious cinematic undertakings ever, up until the most recent Dying of the Light, a film Schrader ended up disowning after the studio edited and released it without his knowledge. He’s a guy who has always preferred doing things his way and he hasn’t been shy about it. And I guess that’s probably why only he could make a film as pulpy, crazy and ‘out there’ as Dog Eat Dog.
Based on a novel by Edward Bunker (the real life con and novelist who played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs) Dog Eat Dog follows the story of ex-cons, Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), who are hired by an eccentric mob boss to kidnap a baby and hold it for a large ransom. When the abduction goes awry, the men find themselves on the run from the mob and the cops. Vowing to stay out of prison at all costs, getting away with the crime is a matter of life and death.
From the delirious and somewhat disturbing opening scene, Dog Eat Dog grabbed me like few movies these days do. In many ways, it’s like Schrader is giving a middle-finger to anyone who has ever stood in his way or told him how to make or cut his film. It’s something perhaps best reflected by the increasingly bold creative choices he makes throughout the film. Whether it be the garish filters he uses, the bizarre framing choices or the decision to cast himself in the role of a big-time mobster. It just works.
At it’s heart, this is essentially a movie about three sleazebag criminals looking to do one last job, a story that’s been done countless times in countless other crime films. But again, it’s the execution that’s done so well and in such an entertaining way that the somewhat familiar central story was never really a problem for me. The performances from Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe are absolutely fantastic. It’s nice to see Cage playing a character that hasn’t completely lost his mind for once. His Bogart imitating Troy has a restraint and edginess sorely missing from Cage’s recent work. The crazy guy role on the other hand, is left to Willem Dafoe this time and boy does he do a great job. He’s at his scenery chewing best as Mad Dog and delivers some the most darkly funny moments of the film.
Kudos to Matthew Wilder’s script as well, which perfectly captures the pulpy and darkly comic tone Schrader is clearly trying to go for. The dialogue is immensely fun and enjoyable, especially when you have the three main characters interacting.
Now, Dog Eat Dog is a nasty and violent film, make no mistake about it. And it definitely goes without saying that it isn’t for everyone and often evokes stuff that has already been done to a far better extent by Tarantino. But at the same time, it feels like Schrader is reminding us of the days when edgy, nasty, R-Rated films about self-destructive characters were the real deal and that’s what really surprised me about this film. It’s really the best kind of throwback. It’s pointless, but done with a certain panache and has that ability to be unapologetically edgy, wildly entertaining and darkly humorous few films these days do.