Cage and Dafoe are let loose in Paul Schrader’s degenerate, post-moral crime caper

David G. Hughes on Paul Schrader’s ‘Dog Eat Dog’ (2016)

Paul Schrader’s auteurist obsession with degeneracy and bruised masculinity reaches its most elaborate with Dog Eat Dog, a film brazenly attempting to ignore the existence of defunct notions like morality or convention. If Schrader’s underrated erotic thriller The Canyons (2013), a collaboration with author and fellow amoralist Bret Easton Ellis, was an attempt to allude to the ice-cold nothingness at the core of American existence, starring as it did Lindsay Lohan and porn-star James Deen, this is his full-throttle attempt to depict a post-moral, post-ideological world in all of its violent and anarchic catharsis.

It feels somewhat fateful that collaborating on such a project is Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe (his seventh collaboration with Schrader), two actors that have been pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be actorly flamboyance for some time. Dafoe regularly goes bold with cinema’s artistic elite (portrays them in the case of Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini[2014]), while Cage does the same within the free arena of direct-to-video genre kitsch. Schrader, Cage, Dafoe: a dramatis personae of eccentricity that contemporary Hollywood don’t quite know what to do with but provide ample fun when together.

Since the turn of the millennium, Schrader’s reputation has experienced a gradual entropy within the critical and industrial circuit. While once the writer of quintessential American Renaissance films such as Taxi Driver(1976) and Raging Bull (1980), his unparalleled ability to write on paranoid and fragmented masculinity gained him favour during a more liberal era but has since made him a victim of a changing landscape in American cinema. The low-point certainly being his previous film and first collaboration with Cage, Dying of the Light (2014), a film so calamitous (studio interference being the oft-cited reason) that one wondered if Schrader could ever recover his artistic voice. Dog Eat Dog is a cathartic and bloody operation to regain this voice and, we are pleased to say, the operation is an empowering success.

There is undoubtedly a palpable sense when watching this stylistically overwrought film that everyone involved, Schrader most of all, is desperately throwing what they can at the wall and hoping something sticks. Luckily plenty does: sordid black humour and aesthetic violence, off-piste plotless indulgences and, most crucially, Cage and Dafoe’s flash-bang performances as lovable deplorables. As Troy and Mad Dog, respectively, their unscrupulous hedonism and volatile masculinity often result in the most banal elements of life concluding with random moments of extreme violence or extreme stupidity to the riotous joy of the not-easily-offended viewer.

Where once Schrader directed realist tales of the descent into madness and violence in an exceptionally measured and “tasteful” feature like Affliction (1997), the super-charged brash perversity of Dog Eat Dog, its tastelessness and iconoclasm, is exactly what is required of American cinema in 2016. Gone are the days for being demure, polite and understated, and here are the days of Dog Eat Dog—a mad film for a mad world.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.