There seems to be this obligation in filmmakers to try and understand the inner mechanics of a nihilistic psychopath. What makes them so volatile and callous? What could possibly have led to such a distinct lack of empathy? But in Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog, the venerable filmmaker has offered an unapologetic depiction of three utterly mad bastards, not attempting to get into their head and comprehend what makes this tick – instead thriving off the notion that there are some crazy muthafuckas in the world, and here’s a trio of ’em, stripping back the humanity from the original Edward Bunker novel this film is based upon.
Troy (Nicolas Cage) is somewhat less unhinged than his associate Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), but owes him his life, after the latter leaped to his defence during an altercation in prison. Now the pair are roaming the streets, and alongside Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), they attempt to assimilate back into society and readjust to civilian life. But where’s the fun in that? They all chase that one last payout, the rush of the crime, the thrill of avoiding capture – they’re in this for the long haul, and so Troy crafts the perfect crime, that if they can pull off, will allow them to live a blissful existence elsewhere, away from the demons that haunt them on home turf.
The indelible tone to this resourceful crime thriller is established from the offset, as we watch as Mad Dog violently attacks, and murders an unarmed woman. But it’s not just the narrative this kickstarts, but the filmmaker’s inclination for creativity, for the use of colours and imagery makes for a visceral opener, and sets the precedence for the rest of the endeavour. There’s no real rhyme nor reason for any of the artistic choices, so unpredictable in their implementation, and a challenge to establish what they’re trying to say – but that in itself in emblematic of the protagonists and the haphazard nature of the film.
The casting is spot-on too, and while Dafoe represents the most disturbed of the collective, Cage impresses equally as the supposed ‘normal’ member. But similarly to his recent thriller The Trust, alongside Elijah Wood, Cage may not be overt in his lunacy, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes, he’s supposed to be embodying the ‘straight’ guy, and yet is just as demented as the company he keeps. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a role he plays so well too, and has mastered to such perfection, expertly self-aware and yet seemingly not truly aware of anything at all – always without a moral compass.
Dog Eat Dog will not be for everybody, it’s unforgiving in its commitment to violence and unconventional in its means of storytelling. But whether you like this film or not, and believe me, you can’t be blamed for falling into the latter camp, you simply cannot fault the ingenuity, as a film it’s unlikely you’ll have seen anything quite like for a good long while.