Monday, July 31, 2017


When you peel back the violence and bloodshed of Paul Schrader's Dog Eat Dog, it's a movie about a bunch of geezers whose time has come and gone. Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) are three ex-cons who have spent so much time in prison that they're out of touch with the world. In between assignments for a Cleveland crime boss, which include kidnapping a rival gangster's baby, they engage in idle banter. They've never heard of Taylor Swift or Elliot Smith, and they're surprised at the way young black criminals all seem to act like characters from television. Troy, the smartest of the trio, only likes old movies, especially the vintage Warner Bros dramas with Bogart and Cagney. One of the big thrills of his prison term was when he ran into a Hollywood producer, also doing time, who told him, "You look like a stretched out Bogart." Diesel, a brutal powerhouse, is mad at life and has trouble relating to people. Mad Dog, a drug addled killer, likes to walk barefoot on carpeted floors because there were no carpets in prison. He'll also muse on life, asking if it's ever too late for a person to change his ways. If they'd stop the gun-play long enough, these three could have one intense conversation, and maybe learn something about themselves.

The out of touch quality shared by the three cons brings to mind the hard men of The Wild Bunch watching the world change before their eyes. Of course, The Wild Bunch is a classic, and Dog Eat Dog is just quickie entertainment, but Troy, I imagine, could be a stand-in for Schrader. He's a guy who doesn't quite fit with the new crowd, and wants to reclaim some of the old magic one last time. The bad news for Troy is that he can't do it, and can only dream of being Bogart, sneering as he prepares for one final showdown with the coppers. The good news for Schrader is that he can still reach into his bag of tricks - as a writer and director his resume includes some very fine films, from American Gigolo to Mishima to Affliction, plus his screenplay for Taxi Driver - and turn out a ballsy neo-noir like Dog Eat Dog. If a young, unknown director made this movie, he'd be hailed as a new talent to watch.

The opening scene is like a cyclone of favorite Schrader motifs. Mad Dog, sniveling and hallucinating after injecting himself with enough drugs to floor an elephant, is caught looking at internet porn by his obese girlfriend. Ashamed when she banishes him from the house, he promptly murders her with a knife. Then he kills her daughter. Sitting on the daughter's bed, he finds the only spot on his arm that isn't covered in gore and pours a bump of cocaine on it. He snorts it, probably inhaling somebody's blood along the way. What's most peculiar about the scene is that it's done in a kind of silly, surreal fashion with goofy music in the background, recalling Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. From there, Schrader keeps the viewer off balance, switching from color to black and white and back again, and piling on the unexpected plot twists.

Dog Eat Dog wasn't a picnic to make. Cage walked off the set early over money issues and had to be lured back; unable to find an actor to play the role of El Greco, the Cleveland boss, Schrader stepped in for his first time as an actor.  Its reception wasn't great, either. One effete critic wondered if Schrader had "lost touch with reality."  Others were turned off by its mean spirited tone, and by the hateful caricatures of women. True, the women in the movie are mostly high priced hookers. There's also a nameless female cop who gets punched in the mouth several times by Troy; his inability to knock her cold is a nightmare version of impotence. None of this caused me to lose any sleep -  I'm sure its part and parcel of the old Edward Bunker novel on which it was based - because I was too waylaid by Schrader's visual style. Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan create something dreamlike and dynamic here, perhaps Schrader's most cinematic piece of eyeball candy ever. Is the movie entirely satisfying? No. But Schrader is having a hell of time and, even at 71, he's better than most of the clowns in the movie racket today. But beware: This movie doesn't give a shit if you like it.

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