Gotta Go Samurai: Pleasure and Mania in Paul Schrader’s “Dog Eat Dog”

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Directed by: Paul Schrader
Written by: Matthew Wilder
Based on the novel by: Edward Bunker
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Omar J. Dorsey, Paul Schrader, Louisa Krause
Produced by: Brian Beckmann, Mark Earl Burman, Gary Hamilton, David Hillary
Cinematography by: Alexander Dynan
Editing by: Ben Rodriguez Jr.
Closing Entry of the Directors’ Fortnight – 2016 Cannes Film Festival

*****

Editor’s Note: Dog Eat Dog opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 4, 2016. It will head to VOD in high definition and in further theaters on November 11.

*****

Cinephiles, drop your pants: Paul Schrader roars back to full directorial health with Dog Eat Dog, his most affecting film since Affliction, and it is very exciting. This is a renewed Schrader, a vigorous Schrader, conducting the image as if he was the bastard child of Darren Aronofsky and Oliver Stone at their best. Thanks to a maniacal and hilarious script by Matthew Wilder (from a novel by Edward Bunker I have never read, but now desperately want to), Schrader has pushed the neon-hued thriller once again into idiosyncratic territory. The visual residue of Taxi Driver, The Canyons, and his most recent work, Dying of the Light, does not distract from the fact that this picture is a fully accomplished work of entertainment.

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I wonder, going back over this odd, scary, vicious movie if it will somehow reintroduce the filmmaker into the mainstream. Not many people watched IFC Films’s The Canyons, but that movie reinforced Schrader’s exceptional gift with actors – Lindsay Lohan and James Deen both frightening, rich, and charismatic as hell – just as Dog Eat Dog again demonstrates his skill at adaptation. Wilder’s script about three small-time hoods played by Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Matthew Cook is a hostile little masterpiece. Troy (Cage) is the hapless gang-leader, a gregarious but delusional life criminal just out of a “five to fifteen year” prison sentence. His buddies, Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook, who looks like he eats one Dwayne Johnson a day) and Mad Dog (another magnificent oddball in the vein of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou made real by Dafoe) want to celebrate. But Mad Dog is a heroin addict who has just murdered a girlfriend and her teenage daughter – a feat of raucous violence that opens the film on a “high” note – so the boys are forced to take jobs with huge payoffs. They find one such gig in Cleveland, where a friendly Greek man named El Greco instructs them to kidnap a baby, demand a ransom, and leave the city. In a masterstroke of casting, the Greco is played by a terrific first time actor: Paul Schrader himself.

All three of the criminals are sociopathic in one way or another, leading to some cosmic performances from Cage and Dafoe especially. Both actors are just amazing, Cage especially by injecting a self-referential Bogart thing into his usual Bad Lieutenant schtick. Then again, when are these two actors anything less than perfectly fucked-up? And as Diesel – which I wouldn’t be surprised to learn is a Vin Diesel reference – Cook is a marvel, more emotive than Dave Bautista (who he resembles) and also a bit doughy; that he holds his own in seeming unhinged against the mass-murdering Dafoe seems nearly impossible, but it is true.

Wilder’s script puts them in the usual situations: car chases, accidental run-ins with the cops, debauched trips to the casino. But Alexander Dynan, the cinematographer, shoots with distinct changes to the sequences, with almost no two scenes resembling one another. Bloody effects look to be pulled from the Tarantino stable, while an entire sequence of drug abuse plays as a direct homage to Requiem for a Dream. Dynan utilizes black-and-white photography a few times, only to bring double up on Argento-like pop colors in the next frame (neon is used in particularly beautiful ways after the babynapping goes off-the-rails.) What in a less exciting crime thriller might have been formula (and there is an undeniable Bonnie and Clyde thing happening here, right down to the bullet-riddling of our beloved protagonists) becomes completely unreliably narrated.

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A frantic energy pervades the performances and the imagery, with Dynan’s camera constantly moving and some pushy editing by Ben Rodriguez Jr. But this is not an abrasive movie, with the exception of its upsetting opening scene. I think you’ll notice, actually, that it’s a comedy of errors and mental illness, with the psychopathologies of Troy and Mad Dog becoming the subject of many of Wilder’s best jokes. Dafoe’s character is obsessed with self-improvement and getting his life back on track, but he plans to fix himself while burying a man whose head he shot off. Diesel, by contrast, is a sensitive loverboy who has a caustic relationship with women like Zoe (Louisa Krause of Martha Marcy Mae Marlene). He wants connection, but because he looks like a human bear, he frightens women to his great, pathological embarrassment. How Cook veers from interested in people to violently demented is impressively disturbing.

To Schrader’s credit, we never find ourselves successfully oriented to the reality that these dipshits live in. Even Cage’s narration lasts only about twenty lines of a monologue that would make Terrence Malick weep with its abstractness. In addition to being unmoored from naturalism of any kind, Dog Eat Dog is Absurdist, Surrealist, hyperrealistic, post-modern, Cagerific, Dafoetastic, and just about as strange as independent film gets.

As a result, it recalls Schrader’s most impactful and daring work. It is a careful reminder than even fifty years of professional writing and directing cannot soil the power of our best filmmakers when the correct material reaches them. Like Scorsese, Eastwood, Polanski, Allen, Demme, and Spielberg, Schrader’s directing has absorbed the financial and production realities of the new times without a hint of decrease in the movies’ actual qualities. That RLJ Entertainment will release this new movie on Video-on-Demand and in theaters on Nov. 11 is an event worth celebrating. If there’s justice in the industry – and of course, I say that rhetorically since we know there’s no such thing – Dog Eat Dog will earn just enough money to put Schrader back into the conversation with his better-known peers.

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