In his breakout role in The Petrified Forest as Duke Mantee, an escaped con on a rapid descent into ruin, Humphrey Bogart delivers a memorable line: “I’ve spent most of my life in prison. I’ll probably spend the rest of it dead.” Dog Eat Dog expresses its essential fatalism a bit less poignantly, as Nicolas Cage’s Troy faces down death while terribly impersonating Bogie. Troy, like Duke, is also a convict, recently released on parole, and his prospects are just as gloomy; in this bleak reckoning of post-recession America, the world outside of prison is barely distinguishable from the one within, ruled by a morally bankrupt jungle mentality and defined by all-encompassing corruption. Abandoning any pretense toward refinement, Paul Schrader’s latest conveys this state of affairs with utmost bad taste, fully indulging the freedom of the grubby DTV aesthetic that the filmmaker has embraced in his recent work.
This ultimately means that Dog Eat Dog is a film whose outré sense of abandon is completely predicated on how much of a mess it is. What begins as a suitably madcap black-comedy romp, depicting the frenzied headspace of an unhinged addict in the depths of an interminable binge, splinters off into a riotous, exhausting mélange of visual and narrative styles, its over-driven mixture of camera tricks, gonzo violence, and grim gags never finding a remotely coherent focus. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe matches a classically manic Cage performance with his own deranged agitation as the homicidal cokehead Mad Dog, who teams up with Troy and the hulking, philosophical Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), a fellow ex-con who acts as both their muscle and an overburdened straight man.
The film fittingly opens with a senseless murder, then navigates its narrative through a number of other killings, with the spectacle of casual, messily conducted bloodletting acting as the strongest link between an often inexplicable series of events. The story charts the journey of the three aforementioned prison buddies, now reunited on the outside, hoping for little more than to keep up their respective highs without resorting to honest labor. This, of course, leads to the requisite final job, which will net all participants a solid 250 grand, for the seemingly simple task of kidnapping an infant. Everyone involved realizes this figure isn’t quite the princely sum needed to ride off into the sunset, but they’re also short on other options, facing down the grim prospect of trudging through middle age in a work-release program.
Unsurprisingly, what’s conceived as a carefully coordinated abduction soon goes horrifically wrong, an outcome predicted beforehand by Diesel, the smartest of the bunch despite his rough-hewn, muscle-bound persona. A wintry, desolate Cleveland, portrayed through a series of tumbledown industrial landscapes, furthers the air of hopelessness. So does Troy’s repeated use of “samurai shit” as the watchword for their mission, an empty invocation of duty that sums up both the absolute pointlessness of the endeavor, as well as it’s almost certainly doomed outcome. The group’s pledge to die before returning to custody connects to a longtime focus on ritual suicide, most specifically serving as an echo of the medieval bushido code inspiring the protagonist of Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
This setup may be hackneyed, but the story’s carceral focus at least makes sense, considering Schrader’s career-long fixation on literal and metaphorical prisons. Those themes get further attention thanks to a script adapted from a novel by Edward Bunker, an ex-con and fellow cataloguer of what a time in compressed spaces can do to a man’s thought process. Yet despite thematic connections to previous projects, specifically the Bresson-inspired “men in rooms” trilogy (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, and Light Sleeper), Dog Eat Dog is as erratic and ungainly as Schrader’s earlier work was atmospheric and balletic. This seems less like a factor of budget—considering the brilliance achieved with small sums of money across his career—than an increasingly misanthropic outlook that robs the film of any potential texture or meaning.
Schrader’s oeuvre has always been suffused with squalor and grime, but for the most part retained a belief in a coherent moral universe, in which actions had corrective—if not always equitable—penalties, offering immediate, logical consequences which pointed toward conclusive spiritual awakenings. Such an approach has now been dropped for something closer to Abel Ferrara’s guttersnipe Catholicism—answering sins with retributive punishments, and withholding redemption and grace in place of brutal final reckonings. Ferrara has found many ways to keep such a perspective feeling fresh, disreputable and complex, all at the same time. Schrader, at least here, has not.
This darkening of perspective has been present in some form as far back as Schrader’s sins-of-the-father drama Affliction, but the translation of these themes into the seedy conventions of schlock cinema began in force in the director’s previous two films. The Canyons retained a certain Bressonian blankness from Schrader’s earlier work, the wide-eyed gaze of the seeker replaced by the blank glare of the terminally involved narcissist, caught in a mirror maze of selfies and parasitic relationships. Dying of the Light, butchered by its studio after Schrader handed in his final cut, at least retained a interesting metaphoric center, positioning a symbolic collision between fanatical neo-conservative patriotism and fundamentalist Islam, albeit one on which it eventually failed to deliver.
Dog Eat Dog, however, is just frantic, mean-spirited nonsense, a would-be intellectual exploitation flick scrambling for contemporary relevance and finding only nihilistic hollowness, falling so far from the director’s peak output that it’s depressing to behold. It’s depiction of modern malaise revels in nastiness, yet offers no consistent viewpoint outside of its own sordid collapse under such overwhelming unpleasantness. Instead of moments of self-discovery, the trials his antiheroes pass through merely lead to the cold emptiness of death, often taking others down with them. The film has a few thrilling moments, but its pleasures are fleeting and always balanced by oppressive ugliness, representing an even deeper dive into a dismal new aesthetic founded on chaos rather than contemplation.