As a director, Paul Schrader feels reinvigorated in Dog Eat Dog, a departure from his usual heavy subject matter even though it’s set in that same familiar world of sleazy criminals and awful men. Ex-cons Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) are tough and nuts, but they are also really, really bad at what they do, so when they get hired to do a job, it’s not a question of when they’ll screw up, but how badly and often. These are guys who can blow a simple money-for-sex transaction with prostitutes. And this would be more laugh-out-loud funny if it didn’t inevitably lead to the brutal deaths of innocents along the way.
Even if not always a laugh-laden one, Dog Eat Dog is a blast if you have the right sort of mindset for it. Do you like Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe acting bonkers, getting high, and blowing people away? Is it inherently amusing to you that the setting for all this mayhem is Cleveland? Do you appreciate callbacks like Cage’s character being named Troy, and kidnapping a baby at one point? I do, and therefore I’m at least partially presold. Want to see Cage perform an entire sequence impersonating Humphrey Bogart for no reason? Come on in. But if you’re still upset about Negan cracking skulls with a baseball bat on The Walking Dead, or take onscreen violence especially seriously, Dog Eat Dog has “trigger warning” written all over it. Then again, it is made by the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, so you probably expected that.
Schrader opens the film with an absurd-looking low-budget talk show that features a debate of the Second Amendment, with a low-rent public-access-type host acting incredulous that his guest needs and wants as many guns as he has in his possession. The entire film that follows could be considered the director’s refutation of the need for everyone to be armed, since even when good guys with guns take down bad guys with guns in this story, innocent people suffer and die.
Schrader frequently stages scenes like they’re dreams, playing with color to emphasize how unreal the “normal” world can feel to these guys, tweaking the visuals to represent drugged-out points of view, and in one particularly clever moment, shooting an entire sequence in black and white just so he can hit us with the visual punchline of Cage’s suit having been in a grossly garish color scheme the entire time.
Mostly, I think he’s just having fun, like you or I might do given the budget to hire Dafoe and Cage and let them go crazy (hell, he even casts himself in a key role just so he can do a few scenes with Cage, as one would). You can pick out a few of the obvious influences: there’s an action sequence shot like Crank, a domestic violence bit that feels Natural Born Killers-y, an urban raid that could easily go in a David Ayer flick. It’s cool to see a veteran like Schrader clearly invigorated by some of the newer talents in the field, and it’s all taken a whole lot less seriously than the likes of Auto Focus or Affliction.
We do need to address the film’s treatment of women, however, which is to say they exist in this movie to get men aroused (nudity abounds) and/or be murdered, and that’s about it. As in The Wicker Man, you get to see Cage punch a woman in the face, but unlike in that movie, he isn’t promptly made to pay by having angry feminists funnel bees into his mouth. This might be all the more offensive were it not for the fact that the movie is clear about the fact that its male main characters are quite obviously horrible from the moment Dafoe shoots a teenage girl in the head. If you’re the kind of viewer who needs someone onscreen to sympathize with, this isn’t your film. If you think Nic Cage trying to angrily mansplain the rapidly spiraling chaos around him is hilarious so long as it stays in the realm of fiction, it is.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Image: RLJ Entertainment
Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the LA Film Critics Association despite his love for all things Nic Cage. Follow him on Twitter if you’re feelin’ Cage-y too.