DOG EAT DOG (2016)
Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Paul Schrader, Louisa Krause, Omar Dorsey, Melissa Bolona, Rey Gallegos, Chelcie Melton, Magi Avila
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 11/4/16 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 4, 2016
The opening scene of Dog Eat Dog features an act of sudden, bloody violence and follows it up with another that is less graphic but sickening in its senselessness. The movie never quite tops it, if "tops" is even the correct word here (It seems to be, since the rest of the movie plays out with a similar sense of amorality). Perhaps that's part of the point, if there even is a point to be made here.
The story follows three career criminals who have served time and, now free, never want to go back to the joint. If it comes down to it, the leader of the trio says that, given the choice between being arrested with two strikes on each of their records and death, it's best to go out and to do it "samurai style." The phrase evokes sentiments of honor and romanticism, which is something their lives and careers lack at the moment.
Director Paul Schrader's movie opens with acts of brutality and cruelty that are never matched in those terms. The character who performs them is called Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), because, indeed, he is akin to one. He spends the rest of the movie desperately trying to avoid violence and, later, to atone for this particular double murder of a girlfriend (by slashes from his "special blade," used to gut fish) and her daughter (by a single gunshot while she's hiding under her bedcovers and pleading for mercy).
Does he mean it? It's unlikely, given that Dog, as his associates call him, confesses to wanting to be a better man while trying to dispose of the body of another of his victims. Come to think of it, that killing might "top" the opening ones, if only because there's no head on the corpse after he's done his work.
There's something romantic about the concept of the remorseful criminal, though, whether we're willing to admit it or not. Dog wants the ego boost of putting on a show of trying to be a better man. Troy (Nicolas Cage), the leader of the gang, is convinced that he looks a bit like Humphrey Bogart, and in a late scene that is either a dream or a delusion, he even starts to sound—in a quite put-upon way—like Bogie. If there's anything more superficially and self-reflectively romantic for a movie to summon than the Golden Age of Hollywood, a filmmaker has yet to invent it.
The third man is Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), a bulky guy who met the other two in prison. His idea of a happy ending is one in which the three pull off one last, big job so he can escape to Hawaii to live out the rest of his days. It's not redemption or becoming the epitome of cool, but it sure sounds pretty romantic. The question surrounding Diesel is how far the character is willing to go to hold on to the hope of that escape.
Those are their goals—from the esoteric to the specific. The plan, suggested by the crime boss El Grecco (played by Schrader), is to kidnap the baby of a rival. Each of the three men will receive a quarter of a million dollars if they succeed, although the odds of success are pretty low.
The attempt is a disaster and, as we later learn, completely counterproductive (There are two killings here, which Schrader portrays as a way to reflect the perpetrators' attitudes about themselves—one quite gory and the other off-screen, almost as a way to preserve that character's relative "innocence"). The kidnapping also doesn't matter much in the bigger picture of the screenplay by Matthew Wilder (adapting Edward Bunker's novel).
It's a character piece, although it's a study of three characters who are so deluded about themselves and their criminality that it really only reinforces their delusions. Dafoe's performance is fascinating in the way he almost makes Dog sympathetic, if only because we can sense that the character cannot stop, even if he wanted to do so. The performance seems to be channeling an alternate, heightened version of this material, until a climax that goes overboard with stylistic trickery and Cage's Bogart impression catch up—too late and to little effect—with what Dafoe is doing.
What does one take from Dog Eat Dog, though? It captures the all-or-nothing mentality of these characters, but it's the only note the movie plays in between its violent outbursts. It doesn't attempt to reach any deeper into their lives or find any genuine sympathy for their predicament, because it also recognizes how destructive and pointless any attempt to continue or escape this lifestyle will be. It's an intriguing notion, but instead, Schrader approaches it like exploitative schlock.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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