Author Edward Bunker was a bold novelist who told stories about criminals placed in difficult circumstances, pushed to their limits by a system that seemed intent on bringing out the worst in them, rather than the best. His novels were brutal and often sad, but imbued with a deep sense of humanity. Paul Schrader’s latest film is based upon Bunker’s 1995 novel Dog Eat Dog, and was adapted for the screen by Matthew Wilder, but in translating Bunkers’ book, Schrader and Wilder have kept the lurid and often shockingly violent crime aspects of Bunker’s work, but stripped the humanity, instead filling the story with a sort of gruesome nihilism.
Nicholas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook star as the three criminals out to make some money however they can. They’re desperate, and would rather eat the barrel of a gun than go back inside. Oddly, given Cage’s history of playing deranged characters, it’s Dafoe who plays the wild one of the bunch, Mad Dog, and it’s his character that sets the tone for the majority of the film.
Dog Eat Dog is a film in which it feels like Schrader and co. are constantly flailing, trying everything in the hope that something might stick. Thankfully some of it actually does – the film is a pretty entertaining pulp crime picture at times – but in wildly spraying bullets in every direction, they miss their targets more than they hit them.
The film is restless and unpredictable in a way that somewhat mirrors Mad Dog’s mental state, with framing choices frequently communicating nothing beyond confusion, and splashes of colour or unusual camera movements simply distracting with their desperate attempts to grab your attention. But in amongst all of this wild inexactitude in the direction, there are occasional times in which arresting images or interesting decisions lead to keeping the film alive and the audience on the edge of their seat. The film also tells a relatively straightforward crime narrative in a perfectly coherent manner, whilst at the same time Schrader is dealing in stylistic histrionics at every turn.
The performances, particularly from Dafoe, are also pretty all over the place, and whilst the excess in the way the characters behave is in keeping with the overall tone of the piece, it frequently makes it impossible to take them seriously. Cage, perhaps surprisingly, reins it in for the most part, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering his final scenes in the film whilst doing a rather bizarre impression of another actor. It’s a decision that really makes no sense, but it is quite fun to watch. Much like the rest of the film.