“Let me ask you a question: do you think I look like Humphrey Bogart?”
Three ex-cons – semi cool and collected Troy (Nicolas Cage); hulking, semi-intelligent Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook); and lunatic with a heart of pitiable hope Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) – are hired to kidnap a baby for ransom. Things quickly go to hell.
Paul Schrader injects Dog Eat Dog with a a wild, kinetic energy that throws the entire film off balance, vacillating from tense crime thriller to slacker comedy to hyper-aware black comedy. His directorial decisions seem entirely motivated by the question of ‘Would this be cool?’ rather than any sense of character psychology. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s kind of awesome.
I never thought I’d describe a film that opens with Willem Dafoe murdering his girlfriend and her pre-teen daughter as ‘wacky’, but here I am. It’s wacky. In fact, that opening scene acts as a weird homage to Hype William’s Belly. A strip club scene is shot in black and white for no real reason. Schrader throws in coloured distortions, similar to techniques Nicholas Ray used in We Can’t Go Home Again. The last scene is bathed in a ridiculous amount of neon fog. Schrader even has a hard to describe but nuts iris-gun barrel follow the bullet shot.
The performances roll with this style, Dafoe and Cage in particular clearly having a blast. Dafoe somehow makes a sociopath sympathetic by making him hilariously pitiable and stupid, while Cage slowly descends into a bizarro fantasy land where he starts doing a Humphrey Bogart impression and it’s my favourite thing I’ve seen this year.
And through it all, through the nasty core of nihilism at its centre, is a resolutely goofy sense of humour. From an emotional flashback consisting of these men squirting mustard on each other to Mad Dog burying a body while using the language of self-actualisation, Dog Eat Dog allows itself to bask in a sort of juvenile abandon, no care for reality or consistency, just having the time of its life before its characters probably go back in the can.
To make my case, I present this exchange:
Troy: “What’s that thing you put in a baby’s mouth to shut him up?”
Mad Dog, sincerely and confused: “A dick?”