There is an alternate universe in which Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog – a brazenly disreputable and vicious crime caper – is a high watermark of postmodern American genre cinema. The veteran director has confessed that the film is a throwaway affair, a reunion with Nicholas Cage in reaction to their 2014 psychological thriller, Dying of the Light, which both disowned after a meddling studio edit. That hasn’t stopped him throwing the kitchen sink at a familiar yarn in the hope of injecting some fresh blood (and there’s plenty of that on show) into old veins. The result is trashy, unhinged, and as complete a mess as you’re likely to see this year.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and Schrader’s audacious stylistic flourishes are clearly intended to enliven a staid plot. The film careens from a bloodbath in a garish pink duplex, to moody Noirish monochrome, to an approximation of the effects of cocaine, never pausing for breath, reflection, or explanation. It’s a hyperactive throwback to 90’s post-modern crime thrillers – Natural Born Killers
is the most commonly cited reference point by critics – but Schrader’s experimental excesses, active attempts to subvert and overturn genre convention, end up derailing rather than destabilising.
The director wanted to make a film that no studio would come in and interfere with, but in doing so he’s made something that falls apart at the most fundamental level. None of this is helped by Nicolas Cage. Given that the film was born of the desire to work with Schrader again, it is surprising to learn that in such a raucous and unrestrained piece, Cage turned down the most interesting role and elected to play straight-man, Troy. It’s another of those insipid and utterly forgettable roles for an actor who excels when he’s chewing the scenery.
Instead of playing to his twitchy, wired strengths, Cage is the bland leader in a trio of Cleveland miscreant ex-cons that also includes the muscle-bound lug, Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) and the role Cage passed on, John Aloysius ‘Mad Dog’ McCain (Willem Dafoe). Dafoe goes for it full-throttle: he’s a needy, fidgeting, time-bomb of distraught violence, most amply illustrated in an opening sequence in which he wheedles his way back into the home of his single-mum ex before murdering her and her young daughter when his porn habits are discovered.
When the guys get back together, they cruise a Cleveland made up of strip clubs and convenience stores finally landing on the ‘job to end all jobs’ (they do discuss the cliché of their own story) which is to kidnap a baby. The call-back to Cage’s starring turn in Raising Arizona
is a false dawn, though, as the pot is never as fun as it sounds. Its shtick is to be gutter entertainment, but it’s not consistently amusing enough, and it’s hard not to want the viscera, crass humour and female objectification to eventually amount to something. For all Schrader’s considerable efforts to be stylish and subversive, Dog Eat Dog
quickly becomes the one thing you imagine he was desperate to avoid it being; boring. A bit like Nicolas Cage’s straight-man routine.