Paul Schrader’s last official effort as director was The Canyons, a supremely odd, low budget attack on the hollowness of the Los Angeles lifestyle and contemporary Hollywood. Schrader himself disowns the more recent Dying of the Light since the film was taken out of his hands by its producers and turned into something more straightforwardly palatable as a home entertainment prospect. Whilst The Canyons is certainly adored by the most hardcore of Schrader fans and Dying of the Light has entertained something of a perverse afterlife on DVD as a sort of schizophrenic movie, neither have anything like the commercial potential and reach of Schrader’s latest effort, Dog Eat Dog.
Starring screen icons Nicholas Cage and Willem Dafoe, the film takes full advantage of their overblown personas onscreen. The two actors do not hold back in the roles of two old crooks out of touch with contemporary reality and looking for easy ways to make money. Cage and Dafoe have the time of their lives letting go of all restraints in a film that perfectly understands the potential of their unusual acting styles and status as somewhat dubious stars.
Announcing itself as a satirical critique of distinctively American preoccupations early on, the film opens with Dafoe’s Mad Dog inhaling a significant amount of cocaine in the pink, Barbie-like house of his blonde, overweight lover, and her blonde, overweight daughter, both of whom appear dressed in pink from head to toe. A heavily stylised drug sequence follows, showing Dog — head tilted back, the tattoo of an eye staring at us from underneath his chin — tripping out whilst smaller TV boxes pop up over the screen to show a talk show guest on TV bellowing pro-gun slogans. Dog’s blissful escape is interrupted by the ringing of a pink plastic phone which he rips from the wall in a burst of comically overblown anger — and the undercurrent of rage already underlined by the hand-held visual style all but bursts from the screen.
When Dog’s girlfriend comes home, she promptly discovers that Dog has been watching porn on her laptop, which she uses solely to sort out church meetings and taxes. When she screams at him to leave immediately, the crazed Dog reveals a knife that was for some reason strapped to his ankle, and proceeds to stab her repeatedly before reluctantly going upstairs to shoot the only witness, her daughter. The short, electrifying, and unexpectedly violent sequence perfectly encapsulates the film’s darkly humourous and depressive mode. Schrader’s disdain for modern America is palpable, revealing his very real hatred for its vacuous culture, its gun laws and its failing economic system where money and its swift procurement become the sole concern for so many.
After this effectively assembled pre-credit sequence, one might have expected the once beloved director to get lazy or for the film to relax too much into the intricacies of the plot. Instead, Schrader finds a perfect balance between satirical observation and propulsive storytelling, avoiding the uniformity of tone that is such a frequent pitfall of satire.
Fleeing the murder scene, Mad Dog swiftly teams up with Cage’s Troy, an ageing lowlife who thinks he has the quality of Humphrey Bogart, along with Christopher Matthew Cook’s Diesel, a physically imposing muscleman quite significantly younger than the other two. The gang is hired by an old, creepy mob boss (played by Schrader himself) to kidnap a baby in exchange for a large ransom. Of course everything goes wrong, mostly as a result of Mad Dog’s crazed temperament. Pursued by the mob and police, the gang are ready to do anything to avoid prison.
On the whole, the plot proves somewhat secondary, especially considering how likely things are to turn sour for these men. But it is genuinely interesting to observe Schrader meticulously accounting for the mental processes of his characters in order to justify their winding up in often absurd situations. In a particularly striking scene — unexpected in a violent thriller — Schrader shows how these characters function and act in an environment that does not call for violent behaviour. With the little money they have just made from a chaotic hit-and-run, the three men celebrate each in their own way in a pathetic hotel-casino populated by the elderly. Although each one of them spends his free time with a woman, it is for widely different reasons.
Cage’s Troy picks up a sex worker and proves totally unresponsive to her advances, asking her instead (in his best/worst Humphrey Bogart voice) to move with her to the south of France. His dream world, envisioned in black and white or full of neon lights, and often in slow motion, is clearly inspired by the movies. In fact, it is this man’s irrational suspension of disbelief and his love of Film Noir that will eventually lead him to a wilfully tragic yet deeply stupid end.
Dafoe’s Mad Dog meanwhile, much less of a romantic, hires a masseuse to give him a handjob. When she comments on his difficulty to climax, he violently throws her out. Dog’s relationship with women, his impatience, and his stress, speak of a profound sense of anxiety and self-hatred, itself revealed much more clearly in a moving confession scene later in the film in which Dog is seen weeping for forgiveness and for a friend. However the movie never completely excuses his violence, or explains it away with mental illness. Too intelligent to make this sort of dangerous conflation, Dog Eat Dog brilliantly manages to both delight in the darkly comic absurdity of the brutal murders and to criticise the circumstances that can drive some people to crime. Rather than identify completely with Dog and his cohorts, the film knows when draw the line, maintaining a true humanity in its revulsions at their worst excesses.
The film’s compassion is never more striking than in the relationship between Diesel and the young woman he meets at the hotel’s bar. Their conversation starts in the most tender and respectful terms, but Diesel gets violently frustrated and scares her away when she asks him about his tastes and interests. Stumped, he has nothing to answer because a life of pleasures and choice is not the sort of life he can afford to lead. This genuinely moving scene highlights the extent to which prison and the constant struggle for money has detached the character from non-violent concerns (such as friends and art), all the while instilling in him an impulse to communicate through violence that only contributes to his isolation. The cycle is there to be seen in this figure, extending out to the sort of social commentary one might expect from a more obviously engaged political filmmaker.
In other scenes, the inability to communicate properly and this detachment from contemporary culture is used instead as a source of comedy. The three criminals almost murder one another in the film’s early scenes over a misunderstanding, while Mad Dog entertains intensely dull conversations about elements of pop culture he doesn’t understand such as Taylor Swift.
Always knowing the right moment to shift from earnestness to satire, Schrader ends the movie with a sequence that perfectly merges the two, exposing a fundamental humanity. Set in the fantastical and tragic imagination of Cage’s Troy, yet full of jarring elements that highlight the staggering stupidity of the criminal, the sequence restores to an elaborately staged ‘movie death’ a sense of absurd loss that any real death may evoke. It’s a powerful statement and one which perfectly illustrates the thematic and political coherence of this artfully chaotic film.
This review was originally posted in Spark Magazine on 31/10/2016.