During the post-screening Q+A, director Paul Schrader stated that there were too many filmmakers that thought ‘inside the box’, and those that claimed to ‘think outside the box, are actually still in the box’. As such, he chose to have many first time filmmakers (what he calls the ‘post-rules generation’) work on Dog Eat Dog; however he probably needs to realise that basic coherency isn’t a rule, it’s common filmic sense.
Dog Eat Dog is about three ex-convicts, Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), Troy (Nicolas Cage) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) who are hired by a mob boss (played by Schrader himself) to kidnap a baby to be held for ransom. However, after wildcard Mad Dog makes a fatal error, they find themselves running from both the mob and the cops. The film is full of hyper-violence set against highly stylised settings, as the three main characters cause gratuitously murderous mayhem in Cleveland, Ohio.
Schrader warned before the screening that it would be highly offensive, however it was all so generically crass that it ended up being boring and something not worthy of being offended by. Strip club scenes, gory murders, dick jokes about a baby, sporadic and misplaced racist language – none of this was even provocative, it was just unfortunate and didn’t garner much response or laughs from the audience. The script was generally tolerable though, and the storyline was entertaining enough, however the reason I couldn’t stop watching was because I was trying to figure out the visually confusing mess.
Trying to be innovative and experimental in cinema does not have to be at the cost of coherent film language. 1920s avant-garde and surrealist films are communicable and coherent despite breaking all the rules that Schrader claims this ‘post-rule generation’ to also be doing. Yet, in Dog Eat Dog, the so-called experimentation does not make any sense. Ignoring the 180 degree rule for no apparent reason does not make for interesting cinema; it makes a simple conversation about stereotypical ‘criminal talk’ a disorientating affair. There were jump cuts that pushed the subject of the frame from the far left to the far right of the screen sporadically, making the viewer have to turn their head from side to side until they gave up and looked at the ceiling instead. None of the director’s choices seemed to be grounded in any sound reasoning (for instance, in the Q+A Schrader said that the reason the strip club scenes was in black and white were simply because no other film had done it in monochrome). He also said that the film was heavily influenced by different directors and their styles – some of which could possibly be Tarantino, Scorsese, Almodovar, Godard, whoever directed Shaft – and it resulted in a something that felt like it was made by 20 different film students individually, then cut together to make a final piece; and the director failed to convincingly justify this thoughtlessly eclectic car crash.
There were parts of Dog Eat Dog that I did like, such as the opening scene’s colour scheme of a barbie pink house with a neon-blue lit bathroom – although the director later said that this idea was directly lifted out of another film he admires. I also liked the dream sequence that ended the film wherein Troy takes on a Humphrey Bogart persona and enters a stand-off with the police in a flurry of colour and smoke. However, in the Q+A, Schrader more or less said that this scene was just thrown in there willy-nilly in the name of experimenting with a different kind of ending. And the Bogart impersonation from Nicolas Cage was stuck in by the actor himself during filming because he knew he could play around with the loose script of a low-key movie. It’s quite unfortunate that the only good bits of the film weren’t even consciously thought out. It must be said that the acting was notably strong though. Willem Dafoe’s wildcard character was entertaining and consistent, whilst Cage’s acting, having always walked the line between the ridiculous and the brilliant, was right at home in this strange film. I really did enjoy watching them together on screen alongside Christopher Matthew Cook to form a dynamic gang that seemed to have a believable and natural rapport with each other. The acting couldn’t save the film from its major issues with coherency though.
Dog Eat Dog is a confused film that clearly had very little thought put into it, parading as an attempt to experiment with cinema. But bear in mind that this is Paul Schrader, a talented figure in cinema who co-wrote great Scorsese films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. As such, it begins to feel like this terrible film was simply made as a pastime, a bit of fun for someone who knows he can get support from great actors and the funding. I suppose, then, there’s no point in being annoyed at this film as even Schrader seemed to have a sense of awareness, stressing in his Q+A several times that ‘Dog Eat Dog is not a serious film’, and not to worry because his next film would be ‘nothing like this one’.