Paul Schrader does not feel he has been adequately appreciated lately—or, at least that’s how it seems when you hear him talk about the ways in which studios have pushed him aside or how critics have assaulted his work. Whether you agree with him or not, it hardly matters what you think, which is Schrader’s problem: Any lack of respect he’s feeling or less-than-stellar response he’s received, he believes it has nothing to do with the quality of the film’s he’s making, and everything to do with his struggle to, all these years later, make the movies he wants to make in a system that’s rigged against doing just that. If this were a matter of a complicated artist refusing to be labeled as out-of-touch, Schrader’s oeuvre more than proves he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. Except for Dog Eat Dog, his 19th feature as director: In 2016, at age 70, there is no longer any reason to believe Paul Schrader isn’t out of touch.
Dog Eat Dog begins with Willem Dafoe on a couch, obviously zonked out of his gourd, half-watching TV blaring news and broadcast detritus about gun control and the general pall of violence that hangs over America in the oversaturated here and now we currently suffer. Schrader shoots this opening as garishly as Dafoe’s moustache deserves, which means it looks like what I’d imagine Jonas Åkerlund’s Spun would’ve looked like to a terrified 10-year-old in 2003. Dafoe’s strung-out vessel for that unnerving upper-lip hair-worm then goes to the bathroom to do drugs (cue vague Darren Aronofsky rip), afterwards greeting a shrill woman and her shrill daughter, begging the woman to let him stay the night (as the house is not apparently his), to which she agrees until she sees that he’s been using her computer to watch porn, angrily ordering him to get out. He won’t leave—he stabs her to death, and then he goes upstairs to shoot the daughter in the head. Smash cut: DOG EAT DOG. This movie is excrement.
Dafoe is Mad Dog, an ex-con whose besties are a Q-ball roughneck type with a super-confused heart of pyrite, Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), and ersatz scumbag leader in humanity’s ugliest suit, Troy (Nicolas Cage), who also serves as our narrator. Troy tells us they got to know each other in jail, and then gives us an idea of the pitch-black shenanigans to come, simultaneously going to meet with Grecco the Greek (yes, that’s this character’s name, and yep, he’s played by Paul Schrader) to pick up some last-minute jobs and make some fast cash, since Troy just got out of jail and he needs to get back on his feet. The three friends get into icky hijinks, dependably applying little but belligerence to each situation, and eventually everything catches up to them in stupendously shameless fashion, bookended by what’s probably a hallucinatory grace note but plays out like an extra five muddled minutes in an already torturously paced film. It’s not slow, it’s just so hyperactive and aimless it quickly becomes a soul-numbing slog.
In Jim Hemphill’s fascinating conversation with Nicolas Cage and Paul Schrader, the director describes his thinking in creating such a stylistic departure from everything he’s ever done before: “There was a generation that made the rules, a generation that codified that rules and then there was a generation, my generation, that broke the rules. Then there’s Quentin [Tarantino]’s generation that laughed at the rules. Now we have a new generation that doesn’t know there were rules. I said, “That’s what I need, these kids who grew up thinking you made films with your phone and whose only context is that.” I don’t want people who are going to think outside the box. I want people who are outside the box…”
Which is all welcome, a director of Schrader’s clout wanting to make a low-key bonkers crime film to escape his recent spate of studio disappointments. Were the movie that Schrader made the revelatory, rule-obliterating movie that Schrader described—were his anarchic flourishes actually something that seems new in 2016. Instead, Dog Eat Dog reminds most of Roger Avery’s Killing Zoe (1993), in that it uses kitchen-sink stylistic indulgence to distract from, and even justify, its post-Tarantino pop-nihilism. Compared to Shrader’s best films—or even to his first as director, Blue Collar, which is a sincere, sobering glimpse into Detroit’s working class ennui—Dog Eat Dog is ballsy, but compared to its contemporary genre ilk, it looks decades behind, Cage and Dafoe inexplicably playing the kinds of thinly drawn, pulp characters they would have played at the beginning of their careers to assure they could push themselves to whatever extremes the story needed. Schrader’s story, adapted and punched-up from Edward Bunker’s novel, doesn’t need such extremes, because everything it does is so pointless. Whether or not the film’s last five minutes are real or are a hallucination, it hardly matters—these characters are deplorable, unlikable, miserable contrivances of every on-the-fringe crime thriller since the ’70s, when Schrader was making much more incisive character studies of the same people: outcasts or rejects who haunt the liminal spaces of our urban nightmares.
Still, Dafoe is committed—so is Cage, as he usually is. And Cook’s able to dredge some humanity from the wreckage of throwaway dialogue that pollutes the film’s boring script. It’s all fine when it’s not being willfully, purposelessly repugnant—unless the act of being repugnant suffices for a point as far as Schrader is concerned. Whatever. Whatever you think is going to happen to these fellas, does. Their fates are written from the moment we’re acquainted with Willem Dafoe’s mustache. As Schrader jokes in the aforementioned interview, with that opening scene, “We try to clear the house of all the people who came to the wrong theater”—why you’d stay in the wrong theater when you meant to see a different movie is anyone’s guess, but what he’s saying rings true enough: You’re either in or you’re out. That Schrader seems to think that those who are “in” are the real artists worthy of our attention shows just how out of touch he really is.
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Matthew Wilder
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Melissa Bolona, Paul Schrader
Release Date: November 4 (NY and LA); November 11, 2016
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.