Paul Schrader’s latest has a lot on its mind and uses a Bogart-impersonating Nicolas Cage to get it out there
Nicolas Cage can add “Humphrey Bogart” to what has become the most colorful filmography of any living actor today. As Troy in Dog Eat Dog, he’s a cultured ex-con fed by a need to convince everyone else he’s a modern day Rick Blaine — and yes, he has a voice to go with it. Troy’s noir fantasy eventually leaves its mark — more on that later — but it flies right by his partners in crime, Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook). Fresh out of prison and looking for work, the trio make a modest haul sussing out a drug dealer’s stash in the middle of the Cleveland projects. Curses are uttered, shots are fired, and the three are onto the next job.
Dog Eat Dog is the latest from writer-director Paul Schrader and by proximity his greatest — at least after the Lindsay Lohan-James Deen melodrama The Canyons and studio ugly duckling Dying of the Light. This isn’t Traffic, but that’s in part because its details are less essential than its delivery, a bizarre tango between gaudy aesthetics and left-field humor. After the gang’s aforementioned ripoff in the Ohio ghetto, “Black Sun Damascus” (by Nicolas Cage’s son Wes) blares in the background as the celebratory song of choice. Orange juice is poured into styrofoam bowls of Fruit Loops set next to extra lines of cocaine and all while Schrader simulates the deterioration of video footage from the post-production booth. Critics have indicted Schrader’s past projects for their schizophrenic approach to tone. This time, the director inches ever closer to his Mishima roots, shooting the power of the image straight, with little qualification as chaser.
Adapting prisoner-turned-novelist Edward Bunker’s work of the same name, Schrader’s direction is both ungainly and unpredictable, and Dafoe is his standard bearer in Mad Dog. Like an aged Richie Gecko, he embodies a thinly layered emotionality that, when punctured by the slightest of slights, incites volcanic eruption. In a show-stopping opener, Mad Dog binges on heroin after breaking into his on-again/off-again girlfriend’s apartment. When the single mother returns to find a whacked-out Mad Dog surfing porn on her laptop and begging for gas money in exchange for ribs and sex, she snaps. It’s a fatal rejection. Dafoe ensures we can see the explosion coming every time with his sad desperation, especially when Mad Dog and Cook’s unremarkable Diesel later pair up for the fraught disposal of a corpse.
Cage is the rock here, and those keeping score at home know that’s more true than not. For every Army of One, there are two Rages waiting in the iMDb wings. He’s the largest head of this particular cerberus, and he’s also its moral conscience. An early rendezvous with a young escort has Troy musing on the finer points of rare gemstones and French culture, much to the disinterest of his temporary companion.
There’s a good guy inside of Troy, one that Schrader uses to steer into pertinent territory. He just takes forever to get there. Troy, Mad Dog and Diesel are subsequently pimped out by “Greco the Greek” (Schrader himself) to kidnap another dealer’s son for ransom money. When their “one last job” goes off the rails, Troy is eventually arrested, beaten, and dragged from a moving police car. Like most minutiae, Schrader spares us the details of his escape. Set against the raspberry blend of cop car lights, Troy and the fuzz engage in a shoot-out that’s quite clearly an homage to classic Hollywood tropes. The difference this time is those caught in between. To Troy and his affected noir cool, the bullet-ridden black couple at film’s end are necessary fodder for another escape, but Cage is also Schrader’s muse, a wonky lens through which he indulges in dead-ends and broken systems. As an elaborate means of exploring the social inequalities of the justice system, it’s wholly unconventional. Were you expecting otherwise, though?