Dog Eat Dog is one of the wildest films of 2016. Based on Edward Bunker’s 1995 novel of the same name, the latest effort from Paul Schrader is an absolute thrill ride riddled with bizarre turns, unique colors, and deliberately odd production choices that work together to shine a very special light on a pair of unforgettable turns from Willem DaFoe and Nicolas Cage. I don’t know that we’ve seen anything like this film in a year or more, and it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to forget it in the near future.
Troy (Cage), Mad Dog (Dafoe), and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) are three ex-cons who make a deal with a mob boss in exchange for kidnapping a baby. What sounds like an easy way to quick cash soon goes awry, and the trio of mismatched personalities find themselves on the run from criminals and law enforcement alike.
What the film lacks in originality plot wise it more than makes up for in its characters and presentation. The opening sequence involves Mad Dog doing bumps of cocaine in the home of a single mother he’s convinced to let him stay. When the woman discovers porn on her computer she attempts to kick Mad Dog out, and he responds by entering a dizzying, drug-induced rage where he slits her throat and stabs her repeatedly in the back before heading upstairs to silence her daughter. This is how we meet someone we’re supposed to root for, and it’s only scratching the surface of what DaFoe is tasked with doing through this role.
Troy is the brains of the group, but that doesn’t exactly make him smart. A better explanation for his leadership would be to say he has the most confidence out of all his friends, and the fact that he constantly dresses in cheap suits while the others look like grown man-children gives the appearance of authority. He was the last member of the trio to leave jail, and he has no plans on returning anytime soon. His plans to prosper are detailed through narration that also aims to help us better appreciate the positive character traits found in the decidedly more violent and volatile personalities of Mad Dog and Diesel.
Diesel is the shallow member of the group. He’s a big, strong man who tends to carry out conversations with his fists rather than his words. He’s deceptively intelligent, but due to a lack of control where his emotions are concerned his ability to connect with the outside world is severely limited. Like Troy and Mad Dog, he needs his friends as much as they need him. The bond they share is stronger than the bonds most of us know, and that dedication to helping one another get ahead leads them to make poor choices at an alarming rate.
Schrader’s vision of Bunker’s world is one that feels five degrees short of being a full-on fever dream. The gang’s intoxicated hijinks are emphasized through brilliant bursts of color and creative editing. Rooms have unnatural hues, like bright pink and blue, and certain scenes play out in black and white. The madness present in Troy, Mad Dog, and Diesel is only further fueled by the friends’ proximity to one another. Whether they know it or not, these men bring the worst out in one another, and in their minds they’re the most sane people in any room. Schrader finds a way to convey these delusions through his presentation, and it goes a long way to keeping you glued to the screen.
Everyone involved in Dog Eat Dog could use a hit, and while the final product here is decidedly outside the realm of mainstream entertainment it does serve as proof that Schrader, Cage, DaFoe, and others still possess the magic that first made them stars. There is a lot to love about this film, and even more worth talking about. Only a fool would let an original crime thriller with high caliber talent like this pass them by, and I like to believe that anyone willing to read my work is the furthest thing from stupid. Don’t let Dog Eat Dog pass you by. It’s a small achievement, but in a year overcrowded with movies and television it stands out as something worth remembering; that is an increasingly rare trait.