The two most incredible things about Dog Eat Dog are that it was directed by Paul Schrader — writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and the Last Temptation of Christ — and supposedly based on a book (written by Edward Bunker, an ex-con turned novelist who cameoed as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs). I say incredible because it feels like a freshman film assignment thrown together in a day, receiving a passing grade for satisfying the minimum requirement that it have a beginning and an end. It’s one of those movies you start hating five minutes in that never gets better from there, where the most fascinating thing about it is that someone actually finished it.
Imagine a potential spree killer wrote a convoluted Boondock Saints homage and had his confused friends try to yadda yadda their way through it and you basically have Dog Eat Dog. It stars Willem Dafoe and Nicolas Cage, two actors I’d previously thought were entertaining even when they’re bad (turns out, not so). In the opening scene, Dafoe (who plays “Mad Dog”) watches a gun infomercial and gets a call from a telemarketer on his rotary wall phone. Why he has a rotary wall phone in 2016 I don’t know, though perhaps the script was dictated through one. (It sort of feels that way.) When the telemarketer asks Mad Dog what he does for a living, Dafoe answers “I work in a cannery and I have a special knife to gut fish!”
That was about 90 seconds in. It was the last interesting thing that happened for the rest of the film. It was a good line though. I’d much rather see a movie about Willem Dafoe playing a guy who works in a cannery and has a special knife to gut fish than whatever Dog Eat Dog is (not that, unfortunately). The telemarketer says “That doesn’t sound like a real job” and Mad Dog yells “Oh yeah!? And calling people at home at f*cking dinner time is?!” and smashes the phone.
Really? Telemarketers? I imagined a drunken granddad lecturing the Thanksgiving table about everything wrong with the world until finally someone snaps and yells “We don’t even have those anymore, grandpa!”
After that, Mad Dog’s girlfriend (Chelcie Melton) comes home and they yell at each other, and her daughter comes home and then they all yell at each other. It’s shrill, but without humor or whimsy, and the dialogue sounds like they’re making it up as they go along, but more like a staged YouTube prank video than skilled improv. There’s a shot of Dafoe and Melton embracing that’s briefly funny, on account of she’s very big and Willem Dafoe is very small (Willem Dafoe’s styling is Dog Eat Dog‘s only redeeming quality). She keeps nagging him, so he stabs her to death. Then he goes into the daugher’s room, puts a pillow over her head and shoots her in the face. The scene feels like it’s maybe an attempt at social commentary, but none of the references are current, or it was supposed to be shocking, but the characters are too campy. When action isn’t believable, you naturally become disinvested in the characters and focus on the creator. (Why does he want me to see this?) And here you’re left to wonder, maybe he just likes the idea of killing women? Was it supposed to be funny because she was fat? The whole movie is like this.
Then Mad Dog goes to a strip club where he meets up with his old prison buddies Troy (Nic Cage) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook). Troy just got out of prison (for shooting a bailiff, according to the flashback, which seems like it would’ve netted him a longer sentence), so Mad Dog and Diesel buy him a busty hooker to fondle. They reminisce for a while, and then the three of them spend the remainder of the movie screwing hookers, beating women, going on peripatetic pop culture rants (“Ay, Tony, you hear about dis Taylor Swift?”), and shooting everyone in the head. Which, I realize, sounds like it might be entertaining, but it’s not. The dialogue sucks, the action doesn’t make any sense, and the camera work and staging are so bad that you couldn’t tell what was happening even if it did.
There isn’t a single interaction with a female character that doesn’t end in her getting beaten up or shot, and the three of them throw around words like “nigger” and “beaner,” which might have some narrative justification — they are murderous ex-cons after all — except that when black or Mexican characters do show up, they act like just the kind of hoary stereotypes Mad Dog would’ve dreamed up if he’d been writing the script. At one point, Diesel explains to a barfly he’s hitting on that he doesn’t like music. “You don’t like music?” she asks.
“Well, for a while I was listening to a lot of rap. And after a while of that, I think it made me hate all music.”
First telemarketers, now rap? (And don’t get me started on women and the blacks!) What else ya got? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Airline food? Michael Dukakis? Dog Eat Dog‘s commentary is dated, its attempts at hard boiled are half baked, and all of it feels mean spirited and inept. It’s a bad joke with no punchline.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.