Dog Eat Dog


Reviewed by: Paul Risker

Dog Eat Dog
"The threadbare plot relies on the performances and writing to underpin this narrative simplicity." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

While the expression "dog eat dog" strikes a pessimistic chord, Paul Schrader seemingly has his finger on the American socio-political pulse with his latest effort. This may not be wholly expected in a crime film with a threadbare plot, the story of three ex-cons hired by one mobster to kidnap the baby of another over an unpaid debt. Yet beneath the surface of the crime story, the hopes and violence of contemporary America are present.

From the opening reference to gun violence, to Troy’s (Nicholas Cage) overture to the American Dream: “I think we all understand that there is no way we are going to get our foot in the straight world, without some serious dough with which to start businesses”, the socio-political references are inescapable. In a strange coincidence, Dog Eat Dog has a firmer finger on the pulse following Donald Trump’s U.S Election victory. The now president-elect campaigned with the slogan: “Make America great again” creating an emphasis on rebuilding America’s infrastructure and the American Dream, the latter of which Troy, Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) all seek a slice of. In turn they are a mirror image of a crumbling country seeking to rebuild through the ‘Dream.’ The trio's dog eat dog mentality and their propensity for aggression perhaps offers a dark image of an intersection where hope and violence meet.

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The threadbare plot relies on the performances and writing to underpin this narrative simplicity. Alongside the cast, writer Matthew Wilder’s adaption of Edward Bunker’s novel delivers sharply written dialogue. While Cage shows the recognisable onscreen identity that has fuelled his star power, while Dafoe displays his onscreen diversity. Both performances command attention but Cook is by no means overshadowed by his co-stars. Cage’s mimicking of Humphrey Bogart, however, has a particular resonance. It allows us to contemplate the changes that have occurred in cinema and have had an impact on the relationship of the star to cinema. The overriding question is whether any change is attributable solely to technology or a mix of technology and an evolving aesthetic. The technological changes are certainly intertwined with the aesthetic of performance and storytelling that has had an impact on the relationship of the star with their vehicles. Dog Eat Dog and Cage’s mimicry of dialogue and voice may remind us of a change, the romanticism of storytelling personified through the stars of the Golden Age belonging to a time that now feels strange taken out of context. It is suggestive of cinematic language through performance and dialogue evolving across time.

Dog Eat Dog’s fractured and abrupt narrative form creates an alienation. Throughout, Wilder demonstrates his skill with dialogue as the exchange of words has an almost melodic precision. The film never unfolds as one might expect a story of this kind to, which creates an abruptness, while the merging of the real world of the film with Troy’s imagination only serves to expose the fractured vision of both its writer and director.

Occasionally the point of a film can be seen or heard in a single moment and in Dog Eat Dog there is that one moment that acts as its core. It comes in the form of a question Diesel asks Troy and Mad Dog as they decide whether to take the job. “That fucking thing that you always hear about, where there's a gig and there's a lot of money at the end, and you run away to Hawaii. That shit never ever works out does it?” Wilder and Schrader’s interest is in this divide between reality and cinema; real life and the conveniences of narrative fiction. But it remains underdeveloped, and feeds the problematic aspects of the film. Even with a veteran screenwriter at the helm, Dog Eat Dog is perhaps proof of the difficulty to turn a poor story into a quality film, and how dialogue and performances can be compromised by narrative deficiencies.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2016
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Two former convicts are torn between going straight and returning to their old lives.
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Director: Paul Schrader

Writer: Edward Bunker, Paul Schrader, Matthew Wilder

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Louisa Krause, Paul Schrader, Melissa Bolona, Magi Avila, John Patrick Jordan, Omar J. Dorsey, Reynaldo Gallegos, Chelsea Mee, Kayla Perkins, Johanna McGinley, Logan Fry, Jessica Sonneborn, Christopher Matthew Cook

Year: 2016

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Cannes 2016

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