Saturday, November 12, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: DOG EAT DOG (2016)

(US/UK - 2016)

Directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Matthew Wilder. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Paul Schrader, Omar Dorsey, Louisa Krause, Melissa Bolona, Rey Gallegos, Nicky Whelan, Chelcie Melton, Ali Wasdovich, Louis Anthony Perez, Magi Avila, Robert Maples. (Unrated, 93 mins)

After a pair of misfires with the crowd-funded THE CANYONS and the disowned DYING OF THE LIGHT, Paul Schrader returns with the crime drama DOG EAT DOG. The now-70-year-old Schrader, best known for his numerous collaborations with Martin Scorsese (he wrote TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, among others) and directing his own films like BLUE COLLAR, AMERICAN GIGOLO, and AFFLICTION, is a filmmaker who seems to seek out conflict, with his head-butting with the producers of DYING OF THE LIGHT a virtual replay of his battles over his EXORCIST prequel DOMINION a decade earlier. Still bitter over having DYING OF THE LIGHT taken away from him in post, Schrader had final cut worked into his deal on DOG EAT DOG, and for a while, it's his most inspired work in years. Working from a novel by ex-con Edward Bunker (who co-wrote RUNAWAY TRAIN and played Mr. Blue in RESERVOIR DOGS), adapted by Matthew Wilder, Schrader is unapologetically making the movie he wants to make with DOG EAT DOG, jettisoning the faux indie pretensions of THE CANYONS but really showing a lack of discipline and focus at times. It jumps all over the place stylistically, playing with color and black & white, framing shots in odd ways, and displaying a fair degree of surrealism. Its tics and flourishes at times recall Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS, but there's no real reason for it. He's trying to gussy up a talky, character-driven crime story, but in doing so, he undermines his actors. There's some terrific stuff in DOG EAT DOG, but it mostly comes off like a coked-up and frequently grotesque KILLING THEM SOFTLY.

DOG EAT DOG centers on three ex-cons and low-level bottom-feeders in the Cleveland underworld: Troy (Nicolas Cage, reteaming with his DYING OF THE LIGHT director) has ambitions beyond Cleveland, but feels indebted to the deranged Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe, whose numerous teamings with Schrader include LIGHT SLEEPER and AUTO-FOCUS), who once saved him from an attack in the joint. The trio is rounded out by the hulking Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), who's loyal to Troy but can only take so much of Mad Dog. Bad-tempered junkie Mad Dog has just killed his girlfriend and her teenage daughter and is eager to nab a big score with Troy. They get it from mob middleman and fixer El Greco (Schrader, in some extremely ill-advised and self-indulgent stunt casting) when they're instructed to rob the stash house of one of his rivals, Moon Man (Omar Dorsey). That goes relatively smoothly and they get a nice payday that they immediately piss away on drugs and prostitutes, but Troy is bored with the Cleveland scene and wants something bigger. El Greco calls on them again when an associate, Chepe (Rey Gallegos) wants $4 million owed to him by white collar criminal Mike Brennan (Louis Anthony Perez). When Brennan won't pay up, Chepe proposes kidnapping Brennan's one-year-old son in exchange for a nice percentage of the ransom. Like almost any cinematic One Last Job, this completely goes to shit, thanks mostly to the impulsive, trigger-happy Mad Dog.

Somewhat free-flowing in its structure, DOG EAT DOG isn't paced like a typical film of this sort. Schrader is initially more interested in characters, their interactions, and their quirks, at least until he gets bored with it and completely loses his way. The whole opening act with Moon Man takes an interesting approach in that it lets us get to know the Troy/Mad Dog/Diesel dynamic but is really just an extended vignette that has nothing to do with the main Chepe plot. Likewise with the opening, a ten-minute sequence showing what leads Mad Dog to kill his girlfriend and her teenage daughter (in short, she won't give him her Chevron card after he leaves a porn site up on her laptop). There's some very dark humor throughout, some of it boldly offensive and inappropriate, and almost all of it supplied by Dafoe. He has one ad-libbed line involving the baby, delivered in total seriousness, that's just wrong on every level, and it's great fun watching him lose his shit over things like an Asian prostitute answering a text while giving him a handjob. Some of the humor is practically slapsticky, like El Greco supplying them with the world's least-convincing fake police car. But it's a manic Dafoe who commands all the attention in DOG EAT DOG, making potential throwaway lines come off as laugh-out-loud funny ("Taylor Swift? Who the fuck is that bitch?" asks a just-paroled and out-of-touch with pop culture Mad Dog), so much so that when he makes an abrupt exit, it just puts a spotlight on how little else is here. Even taking Dafoe's foaming-at-the-mouth performance into consideration, Cage is rather subdued here, his character a man out of time who adores old movies, dreams of running off to Nice and fancies himself an old-school 1940s gangster but really comes off like a film noir cosplayer who's really not that interesting. By the time the climax rolls around, Schrader's just making it up as he goes along, with a foggy, garishly lit, dream-like police chase and Cage's Troy suddenly talking and behaving like he's Humphrey Bogart. DOG EAT DOG works best when it's not being gimmicky and filling the screen with smoke & mirrors to hide how little is there. There's no denying it's entertaining to a point, with a permeating weirdness that almost guarantees at least minor cult status. But after about an hour, it just starts to feel like everyone, from Schrader on down, is just goofing off.

Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I was once Facebook friends with DOG EAT DOG screenwriter Matthew Wilder, until he unfriended and blocked me over my dislike of Jean-Luc Godard's FILM SOCIALISME, creating the hashtag #attackfilmsocialismeanddie. I have had no contact with him since. 

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