Paul Schrader has made no secret of his frustrations about interference from the studios or moneymen that fund his films, going so far as to openly protest the release of 2014’s “The Dying of the Light” with a Facebook post in which he declared that the project “Was taken away from me, reedited, scored, and mixed without my input.” Of course, that was hardly Schrader’s first rodeo. A pugnacious poet-warrior whose screenwriting credits includes the likes of “Taxi Driver” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (and whose occasionally transcendent directorial efforts make those movies look commercial by comparison), he’s never been a big fan of playing things safe. With the bawdy and intoxicatingly batshit “Dog Eat Dog,” Schrader is off the leash once and for all.
And, um, he doesn’t waste any time making that clear. “Dog Eat Dog,” which might be most coherently interpreted as a giant “fuck you” to anyone who’s ever forced Schrader to compromise, begins with a coke-addled ex-con named John Aloysius McCain (Willem Dafoe, with bloodshot eyeballs tattooed on the underside of his chin and the back of his neck) slitting his girlfriend’s neck because she finds his stash of Japanese porn. Then he kills her daughter while shouting things like “I didn’t hear nothing about no cupcakes!” Naturally, all of this is shot through a pungent fuchsia filter and riddled with so many pop-up graphics that it almost feels like a direct homage to “Natural Born Killers” or any of the other queasy, hyper-active crime stories that blew through the mid-’90s like a heatwave.
Despite, or perhaps because of his ridiculous name, John Aloysius McCain’s friends call him “Mad Dog.” And despite, or perhaps because of his penchant for murdering people, Mad Dog does indeed have friends. Two of them, to be precise: Troy (Nicolas Cage, at his Nicolas Cage-iest) and Diesel (the excellently beefy Christopher Matthew Cook). Together, the three musketeers have become the most reckless criminal outfit that suburban Cleveland has ever seen.
But, after somehow managing not to screw up a big score, they get commissioned to kidnap and ransom the baby of a local gangster. But “Raising Arizona” this ain’t. Somewhere, between Mad Dog ranting about Taylor Swift (“I’d never heard of that bitch!”) and a prostitute spouting conspiracy theories about the death of Elliott Smith (“His girlfriend murdered him because he was the only acoustic guy who penetrated the Seattle scene”), our merry trio of morons manage to botch the job, blow a guy’s head clean off, and then completely forget about that kid who they were supposed to steal. It’s only a matter of time before the law is on their tail and they are at each other’s throats.
Loosely adapted from Edward Bunker’s 1995 novel of the same name, “Dog Eat Dog” is essentially a crime thriller with all of the boring parts taken out — all of the logical parts, too. But a scene in which Dafoe derails a plot-sensitive conversation to run his bare feet against the floor of a diner and opine about how “the carpet feels like pussy” between his toes? Yeah, that’s in here. In fact, this wild and compulsively watchable movie is so committed to its own demented thinking that every moment of clear humanity or cultural relevance crackles with the suddenness of thunder (brace for some left-field commentary on Black Lives Matter).
Schrader doesn’t always seem to know which one of these characters is his protagonist — Troy has a way of hijacking the story at a moment’s notice — but Mad Dog occasionally betrays evidence of an actual soul, Dafoe willing a heartbeat of manic self-doubt into a movie that’s always on the verge of bleeding out. This may be one of his silliest roles since “Speed 2,” but with it the actor showcases just why he’s been such an inimitable force of nature over the last several decades. Best of all, Dafoe’s performance destabilizes “Dog Eat Dog” from settling into a clear rhythm or an classifiable genre. One moment, it’s a scuzzy gangster throwback to the direct-to-video era; the next it’s a buddy comedy riff on Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” sequel, complete with a hilariously grandiose shot of Cage dropping to his knees in front of a giant stained glass window.
Most of all, “Dog Eat Dog” is a pointillist portrait of the winding road to redemption, and how it often leads to a dead end. Schrader, like all of the nitwits at the center of his new film, has two strikes against him and is one swing away from a life sentence in (director) jail— like them, he has to go even more crooked if he ever wants to make enough money to go straight. At this point, his only hope for true freedom is to flex the freedom he’s already got. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but it sure can be fun to watch them show off the ones they already know.
Oh, also, it’s important to note that — towards the end of the film — “Dog Eat Dog” pauses for a nostalgic, slow-motion flashback of Willem Dafoe, Nicolas Cage, and Christopher Matthew Cook jumping on hotel beds and spraying ketchup and mustard on each other. So there’s that.
“Dog Eat Dog” opens in theaters on November 4. It will be available on VOD on November 11.