Paul Schrader is a living legend with almost three decades worth of material that is celebrated for good reason, not just as the man who has written a grand total of four Martin Scorsese masterpieces (yes, I’m including Bringing Out the Dead, wanna fight about it?), but also as the director some treasures like Blue Collar, Hardcore, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, among many others. However, ever since the late 90s, he hasn’t been able to reach the heights that he had before.
Dog Eat Dog might not necessarily change everyone’s mind about this. As Schrader himself mentioned when he introduced the film in front of the Beyond Fest crowd, “Of all the prestigious pictures I’ve been a part of, this is not one of them.”
Loosely based on the Edward Bunker book of the same name, the film stars Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook as a group of ex-cons who take up what is meant to be their last gig, holding a rival mobster’s baby up for ransom. The film is Schrader embracing a level of insanity that throws back to 80s crime thrillers and exploitation films. It’s mean, crude, violent and unapologetically excessive on all of those fronts. But if you’re able to get along with the film’s wavelength, it’s a lot of fun. A lot of that fun comes from seeing the three leads bounce off each other, sometimes with it being done through comedic banter, sometimes through violence, and occasionally with a mixture of both.
However, what fascinated me how the film explored the idea of looking back. Though, the film’s kinetic energy is more reflective of modern cinema, the mindset and the attitude is all throwing back to cinema of the 70s and 80s, a period where Schrader really made his mark. The three main characters in Dog Eat Dog are all past their prime, they’re washed up, and they’re nowhere near as smart or as clever as they think they are. Nicolas Cage’s character, Troy, in particular is a man who is always looking to the past. He has a great fondness for Humphrey Bogart, which he likes to claim shares a similarity to his face. Even the brilliant ending of the film shows his desire to capture the feel of a clean and suave criminal, but too out-of-his-element and out-of-touch to the point where he fails in every way.
Perhaps, Dog Eat Dog is Paul Schrader attempting to explore his own relevancy, to see if he still has what it takes to be a part of the game that is the movie business. Or is he too washed up, too out-of-touch? He has made it clear in the past, as well as the in the Q&A after the screening that he was devastated by how his last film, 2014’s Dying of the Light, was taken from him and meddled with by the studio. After all, if the man who wrote Taxi Driver is not being given final cut for his low budget thriller, then maybe it’s a sign that his time has passed, and he’s channeling his anxieties into the film, whether consciously or subconsciously.
It’s an interesting layer that permeates throughout the entire movie, a hint of melancholy in between the gross violence and pitch black comedy. It continues the tradition of films like it from 70s and 80s, where even the most trashiest releases had at least a little something on its mind. Dog Eat Dog is like watching a relic of the past trying to prove its relevancy. I can’t say how that will pan out, but I will say that for those who are willing submit themselves to the sheer lunacy of it all, it will be a damn fine piece of sleazy entertainment. It’s nice to see Paul Schrader really cut loose and go wild. And for better or for worse, I can pretty much guarantee you’re not gonna see anything else in theaters quite like it. 75/100
Dog Eat Dog will have a limited theatrical release on November 4th, followed by a VOD release on November 11.