Taxi Driver and Raging Bull writer Paul Schrader has been on the creative ropes for well over a decade now, what with failures both high-and-low-profile surely driving his stock down with Hollywood’s big-money men. What a joy it is to report, then, that this no-budget thriller co-starring Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe feels like every bit the bonkers, savagely unrestrained vehicle he’s been searching for all these years.
Troy (Cage), his pal Mad Dog (Dafoe) and their younger, tougher cohort Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) team up to kidnap a mobster’s baby for a fat pay-day which means they can leave their lives of crime behind. Naturally, it doesn’t go according to plan.
Dog Eat Dog may be an undeniable (not to mention unapologetic) mess, but it’s also an incredible amount of fun. While most are probably expecting Cage to give another madcap performance that runs away with the movie, the real star here is Dafoe, a mentally unhinged con with no qualms about murdering just about anyone who attempts to ruin his day. He gives possibly the least-dignified performance of his career here, while Cage and Cook grab hold of his coat-tails for the wild, can’t-believe-your-eyes ride.
Schrader’s signature savage dialogue, combined with his rampant ability to offend and to get actors to do unquestionable things (Dafoe has a gloriously offensive liner that won’t easily be forgotten) gives this adaptation of Edward Bunker’s 1995 novel a free-wheeling, off-the-cuff quality that makes it feel as though anything could happen at any moment. It is a beautiful marriage of players, parts, a creative pioneer and a zero-fucks-given production where Schrader has no studio locking him out of the edit suite and hijacking his movie (as happened on his recent Cage-starring flop Dying of the Light).
The easily offended or those unwilling to forgive a generic core plot in favour of colourful characters and sizzling direction should probably best avoid, but for Cage and Dafoe fans, it’s absolutely unmissable, and Cook proves an unexpected find , hanging with his two towering co-stars exceptionally well.
It won’t be making many critical top ten lists for 2016, but as jaw-dropping proof that not all straight-to-VOD Nicolas Cage films are disposable thrillers, Dog Eat Dog is as uncompromising and delightfully nutty a vision as has been committed to film all year. Plus, where else can you see a slow-motion montage of a shirtless Cage and Dafoe squirting ketchup and mustard over one another? Beautiful.
Dog Eat Dog is on limited US release from November 4th and UK cinemas November 11th