Ricky Young looks at Paul Schrader’s latest offering, and tries not to get skeeved out as he does so.
“Empty calories” declares one character to another, as a mini-bar Snickers is passed across a casino hotel room. It could serve as a verdict on Paul Schrader’s gleefully nasty little potboiler Dog Eat Dog – you may get a sugar-rush here and there, but ultimately there’s not much benefit from experiencing it.
Written by Matthew Wilder – no, not that one – and based on Edward Bunker’s stripped-back crime novel, it’s a post-Reservoir Dogs hoodlum fable, only everyone is actively hateful and the world they inhabit pulsates with a sleazy, tiring energy.
(Bunker himself, of course, was a bankrobber of note, and also played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, which later inspired his book, so if you’re the sort of person who appreciates a spine of admittedly-circular authenticity, then fill your boots)
Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) are a trio of long-institutionalised prison buddies, now on the big scary Outside and scrabbling around for work. Lifer hoodlums for whom work, of course, means crime, they ache for a big score to set them up, and use Troy’s big-cheese contact, El Greco (Schrader himself) to get involved in a couple of biggish-stakes capers – the first being a robbery which goes slightly wrong, the second being a kidnapping that goes dreadfully wrong.
The plot is a meandering affair, with the occasional fizz of panic or gore – our protagonists are kinda not-very-good at being criminals, and as such when mistakes are made, they’re really made – and acts as a bare frame from which to hang off the chatty, angsty interplay between the characters.
If you turn up wanting the full nutso Cage experience, you’re not going to get it – he downplays just enough to sell the noir-obsessed gang-leader as a real person, and is thus something of a triumph for both actor and director – but he made the right choice not to play Mad Dog (the role he was first offered), as Dafoe is allowed to be truly frightening. Brutally violent from the first scene, the skeletal Mad Dog is a self-obsessed drug fiend, appalled by his actions but unable to stop himself from making the wrong choice every time. Twitching and grimacing throughout the film, he’s like a psychotic Gabby Hayes, capering in the corner of every shot, unbalancing each scene and upping the stakes as the running time edges by.
For a man of 70, Schrader isn’t afraid to experiment with his films – Dog Eat Dog is a brain-frying mash of noir tropes, with filters, voiceovers, flashbacks, hallucinations and countless visual flourishes – but one wonders how much of it was planned out in advance (his last film was a riot of forced improvisation after all), leading to a tone that’s all over the shop.
Yes, all of the characters are in search of something redemptive (this is Schrader, after all), but we spend so much time watching them being seriously fucking awful people it’s hard to care about their personal quests. In fact, and without spoiling too much, it isn’t that difficult to imagine that not a lot works out for these fellas, but one character in particular, before everything ends for him, appears to get exactly what he wants, in a form of personal ecstasy – one, by the way, where innocent people get hurt. I don’t know about you, but right now I’m not really all that down with seriously fucking awful people getting exactly what what they want. Because innocent people tend to get hurt.
In his review in The New Yorker, Richard Brody described this scene as “in its imaginative and visionary audacity, one of the greatest in recent movies.”
Well, possibly. I’m not American, and it’s a very American movie, so the nuances of elderly Calvinists exorcising their demons might have passed me by. To me it just seemed like having your Snickers bar and eating it. Guess what; you’ll still be hungry later.
Dog Eat Dog is on limited release, and on streaming services, from Friday.
Ricky posts on The Tweeter.