Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog might have one of the best openings in recent memory. Without tediously itemising the whole sequence, let’s just say it involves a totally wired Willem Dafoe armed with a large knife in a lurid suburban setting where bold neon glows battle for supremacy. It’s like Schrader ingested David Lynch, Douglas Sirk, Michael Moore and Martin Scorsese before spewing them out on to celluloid.
The sequence unfolds in an eccentric, cartoonish and hilarious manner with a piercing satirical eye. For all its spectacle and enjoyment, in hindsight, it’s hard to place the fantastical opening in the wider context of Dog Eat Dog’s criminal narrative. There’s never a dull moment with Nicholas Cage and Dafoe masquerading as neurotic, inept crooks, but Schrader’s film is a Jackson Pollock-esque splattering where individual strokes take all the attention.
To attempt to succinctly summarise Dog Eat Dog is a lost cause despite the fact it’s based on Edward Bunker’s (Mr Blue in Pulp Fiction) novel of the same name. At its most rudimentary level, the film follows three criminals — Troy (Cage), Mad Dog (Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) — as they try to find a way out the underworld’s grip. Sick of small scores and petty crimes, the trio set their sights on the jackpot when they are commissioned to kidnap a rival mobster’s baby for ransom. With Troy little more than a bargain bin Humphrey Bogart, Mad Dog needier than Woody Allen and Diesel a steaming bulk of anger, their chemistry is a recipe for nuclear annihilation.
In a Q&A after the screening, Schrader talked about the young team he worked with on the film and how they didn’t so much bend cinematic rules as they were totally unaware of them. It’s this reckless abandon that surges through Dog Eat Dog’s every illogical episode. There are flashes of slow motion fighting, Cronenberg-style body horror, expressionistic neon flourishes along with a black and white visit to a strip club. We’re left in neither a dream nor nightmare, but left swirling in a surreal distortion of the modern world. Schrader and his apostles aren’t reinventing the crime genre; rather, they’re exploring whether the classic Hollywood outlaw can survive in 2016.
Everything from Taylor Swift, gangsters, smart phones and Facebook all take a pounding from our cynical protagonists. The totally self-aware Troy, nailed by Nic Cage perfectly straddling that so-bad-it’s-good level of performance, struggles most desperately with the 21st century. Troy longs for someone to compare his mannerisms with Humphrey Bogart, typified by his stilted conversation about classic Hollywood with an oblivious prostitute. Beyond the Bogart link, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless arrives as a natural companion to Dog Eat Dog’s tongue in cheek critique of the American crime cinema.
In a film where Cage is as crazy as he’s been since Wild at Heart, it’s amazing to see him upstaged by the menacing Dafoe. He manages to remain sheepishly sympathetic as Mad Dog while balancing on the cusp of a total meltdown. His peculiar allure, and film’s vulgar indifference to taste, manifests emphatically when Troy, faced with a blubbering baby, asks, “What’s that thing you stick in a baby’s mouth?” to which Mad Dog responds inquisitively “Dick?”
It’s an audacious incident likely to prompt walkouts from already wobbling audiences. Schrader’s modus operandi for Dog Eat Dog is to shock above all else, and Mad Dog’s inopportune outbursts arm the director with the perfect weapon. Matthew Cook’s Diesel, hidden among the carnage is, unfortunately never really stands a chance in the company of two of Hollywood’s biggest personas allowed completely free rein.
Despite being a Hollywood veteran of some forty odd years, Schrader’s is at his most raw and experimental with Dog Eat Dog. It feels strikingly modern in its dissection of genre and ever-revolving techniques. While it never threatens to succeed as a rounded, narratively driven film, it entertains and shocks with its brisk pacing that bounces off the frame like a hyperactive toddler. We’re in no danger of a bland voyage with Cage and Dafoe driving this runaway train. Paul Schrader’s always been seen as one of Hollywood’s live wires and it seems this perpetual loaded gun has plenty more ammunition left in the barrel.
Verdict: Movie Win
This article is part of a series of articles covering the 2016 London Film Festival.