Paul Schrader is arguably one of our greatest screenwriters.
As a wordsmith, he typed out “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and countless other influential titles. As a director, Schrader is just as ambitious. The results, though, are often mixed when anyone other than Martin Scorsese sits behind the camera.
“Dog Eat Dog [Blu-ray]” is Schrader’s latest directorial effort. It brings together Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe- the two biggest selling points for the movie as well as its best assets.
Following some oddball crooks looking for a shot at the big time, Troy (Cage), Mad Dog (Dafoe), and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) are offered something big when Troy finishes his latest prison stint.
The bumbling trio are given the assignment of kidnapping a baby from a wealthy family, but of course things go very wrong, very quickly.
The film, based on a novel by the late Edward Bunker, isn’t really about a kidnapping, though. In fact, for a writer, Schrader seems very disinterested in plot. He cares about the side alleyways of actions that give us glimpses into the very different main characters.
The benefit to that is Dafoe, Cage, and Cook are all fantastic. Each is given moments to show their criminals aren’t shined up, Hollywood protagonists with redeeming qualities. They’re simply three honestly bad people with recognizable motivations.
DID YOU KNOW: “Dog Eat Dog” novelist Eddie Bunker went from being a professional criminal -- convicted of bank robbery, extortion, and forgery among other things -- to a best-selling novelist and screenwriter. His film credits include “Runaway Train” and “Animal Factory.” Bunker’s work would go on to influence Quentin Tarantino, who cast the writer in “Reservoir Dogs.”
Cage and Dafoe are especially good, with Dafoe handed the opportunity to be the wild card of the bunch. The performance shows why he’s one of the most underrated actors of his generation.
Cage is taken care of, too.
After years of sleepwalking through VOD roles in efforts like “Seeking Justice” and “Outcast,” the actor finally seems to be at least trying. “Dog Eat Dog” and another recent film, “Army of One,” aren’t the most well put together movies. Both remind us why we miss the off the wall Cage from the past.
He holds a screen like no other.
The negative to Schrader’s disinterest in a major driving force of a plot is that “Dog” never builds up much suspense. Despite things going wrong for our main characters again and again, everything feels disjointed. Certain sections of film (including a very strange finale) work incredibly well thanks to the actors and the script’s character beats. Whenever plot is needed for a scene, “Dog” mostly flat lines.
Schrader is no Scorsese behind the camera, but he at least still has an intriguing eye. It’s not always consistent, but his vision brings an originality to “Dog.” Take a handful of brutal scenes from Dafoe’s Mad Dog, and some quiet character moments from Cage and Cook.
“Dog Eat Dog” isn’t an entire success, but it’s some of Dafoe and Cage’s best work, offering a memorably dark and honest adventure.
“Dog Eat Dog [Blu-ray]” is a good buy for any Schrader fan. It includes a commentary from the director, a film festival Q & A with Schrader and Cage, as well as a video introduction from Cage. The film will be released on home video on Dec. 27.