The following was commissioned by Culture Fly
Dog Eat Dog is Paul Schrader firing a rocket from the bazooka of bad taste at Hollywood’s conservative sensibilities so his characters can spray each other with ketchup.
Looking at the cast list, it is pretty clear this film was shooting for bonkers with Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe taking top-billing. But, whilst this film is crazy – a condiment orgy is a deranged killer’s emotional epiphany – it somehow gives Nicolas Cage his least interesting character. A boring Nic Cage, how contradictory.
Contradictions are threaded throughout Dog Eat Dog. It is embittered and happy. It is nihilistic and meaningful. It is gleefully violent and a damnation of police brutality. The weirdest thing about the film is that the slew of oxymorons works well together. Somehow Schrader has made both an awesome and terrible movie.
But, then again, looking at Schrader’s career, that shouldn’t be a surprise. As a director, he deliberately makes films that half the audience will love and the other half will hate. If one of these movies had a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes he would be insulted. Here, he makes his most stylish film to date. The opening scene uses set design and framing to generate perverse meaning with the garish pink and floral wallpaper juxtaposing the brutal violence. He also switches to black and white for no reason. The final shootout between Troy and the police is bathed in red and blue light, masked by a layer of smoke, that just makes the film look pretty and makes Cage look interesting.
As Troy, the ex-con who dreams of returning to Nice and facilitates his dream by committing extortion, kidnapping, the usual odd jobs movie criminals end up doing, Cage plays it relatively straight. He doesn’t do what you want Nic Cage to do but he gives his best performance since Joe. There is none of the Elvis-hip-swinging seen in Wild At Heart.
It’s his Wild At Heart co-star who plays the crazy. Dafoe plays Mad Dog with ease and does what he has always done when playing crazed characters — expect big eyes, evil grins and a trigger-happy finger. Whilst Dafoe isn’t stretching himself by going to the dark side, he does lace the amoral character with hints of pathos making the inevitable conclusion partly tragic.
As a screenwriter, Schrader pulled off similar stunts with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Julian in American Gigolo(which he also directed). But those films had some relevance where as Dafoe is left stranded by a script whose need to be bad to the bone has been passed over to the plotting and subtext.
However, the major problem with Dog Eat Dog is that the amorality is one step too far. Its violence, especially against women, is perverse and is staged in a way that it isn’t clear if you should laugh or shout out in anger. The characters come across as video game characters, killing people who get in their way for no reason, and the three main white male characters are examples of a masculinity that should be long dead.
Dog Eat Dog is cruel but kind; it’s backwards but progressive; it’s a contradiction that will either go down like Tequila or orange juice, and that’s probably how Schrader prefers it.
Dog Eat Dog is in cinemas and on demand from 18 November