'Dog Eat Dog': Cannes Review

A thoroughly disreputable, sordid and engaging crime drama.

Paul Schrader's latest stars Nicolas Cage as an ex-con chasing one last big payday.

It’s not easy to come up with a new way to tell a modern crime story, but Paul Schrader has managed to freshen up a familiar format in Dog Eat Dog, an unhinged, jocular, devil-may-care yarn about three two-time losers who hope one big final payday will be their ticket to easy street. Even in an era defined by the blackly comic criminality of Tarantino and Breaking Bad, there’s some nasty behavior here that will put off many viewers, especially women. The film positively swills in its disreputability and all-around low-budgetness; sporting a healthy disregard for respectability, Schrader has just gone for it here with a highly focused recklessness that he turns to his creative advantage. A game cast, led by Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe, helps the director maintain a tricky tonal balancing act that neatly blends farce and seriousness, an approach that will appeal at least to genre specialists, even if a wider audience will likely prove elusive.

Based on a 1995 novel by the well known convict and writer Edward Bunker, author of Straight Time, the clearly low-budget venture opens with a scene so off-putting that some viewers will reject the film from the outset: A drug-addled dim-wit, aptly named Mad Dog (Dafoe), loses it and senselessly murders his hospitable ex-girlfriend and her teenage daughter. 

When Mad Dog shortly thereafter has a strip club rendezvous with two other ex-cons, Troy (Cage) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), it’s initially difficult to transition from one’s disgust at his vicious act to the raucous guy humor Schrader starts mining when the guys peel off with hookers.  But before long, a sufficient sense of character credibility gains an equal footing with the wacky, go-for-broke approach forged by Schrader and screenwriter Matthew Wilder; these guys all have two strikes hovering over them, they know no other life but crime and need to figure out how they’re going to spend the rest of their years, either permanently behind bars or with enough of a cushion that they’ll never have to work again.

After they make a reasonable score pulling off one small job, the latter possibility swings into view with a wacky scheme proposed by a local Cleveland mobster known as The Greek (Schrader, whose gravely voice makes some of his dialogue hard to decipher): They’ll have all the money they need if they kidnap the baby of an upstart gangster who’s betraying the big boss. Despite initial misgivings—the baby-napping didn’t work out too well in the Lindbergh case—the guys decide what the hell, they’ll go for it.

But big surprise—things don’t go as planned, whereupon the true, aberrant and inherently lawless natures of all three men assert themselves as facts of life, things that simply cannot be denied, overcome or abolished. Instead of slipping into a grim or, perish the thought, moralistic attitude about this acceptance of reality, Schrader has very dark fun with it, as he has his characters remain true to their long-since established character traits of genuine malignance and carries the approach to its natural conclusion in each case.

Along the way, this embrace of the characters’ deeply flawed—nay, fundamentally negative—personalities liberates the film to become good, if peculiar, fun. The three guys continue to do awful and stupid things, including killing more innocent people, and the film isn’t interested in apologizing or finding excuses for them: Bad is bad. But its eventual honesty about their true natures liberates the film to do anything it wants with them, from finding them stupid and appalling to also understanding them. The film walks a tricky and narrow tightrope and wobbles a few times, but maintains its footing, once it finds it, to the end.

It’s a rare film in which a character played by Nicolas Cage emerges as the sanest of the bunch, but so it is here, and the long-in-the-wilderness actor actually comes off here as accomplished and even, believe it or not, appealing in a way; his Troy may ultimately find himself over his head but his attempt to take charge of a situation and momentarily rise above his true nature inspires a peculiar sort of admiration.

By contrast, Dafoe’s low IQ loose cannon is a creation both scary and fresh—a scene in which Mad Dog earnestly enumerates his character flaws is a gem, a definite entry on the actor’s lifetime achievement highlight reel. The little-known, physically prepossessing Cook is downright frightening as a criminal one has no doubt is unreformable.

A rare film to have been shot in Cleveland, Dog Eat Dog definitely looks like it was shot on the cheap but puts what it needs to up on the screen with vigor and wit.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)

Production: Blue Budgie Ded Productions, Mark Earl Burman Productions

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Louisa Krause, Omar Dorsey, Melissa Bolona, Rey Gallegos, Chelcie Melton, Paul Schrader

Director: Paul Schrader

Screenwriter: Matthew Wilder, based on the book by Edward Bunker

Producers: Mark Earl Burman, Brian Beckmann, Gary Hamilton, David Hillary

Executive producers: Jeremy Rosen, Jeff Caperton, Barney Burman, Ray Mansfield, Shaun Redick,  Donald Rivers, Michael McClung, Tim Peternal

Director of photography: Alexander Dynan

Production designer: Grace Yun

Costume designer: Olga Mill

Editor: Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.

Music: We Are Dark Angels

Casting: Kim Coleman

93 minutes