Why is it that every movie Paul Schrader has ever made plays like an invitation to put him on the couch?
A screenwriter (“Taxi Driver”) and director (“Light Sleeper”) whose violent, moralistic melodramas play like peep shows of his id, Schrader makes the sordid underbelly of America his beat. He plunges in unsparingly and invites us to wallow with him, and when he’s on his game, makes us ponder our complicity in this world of his and our making.
He’s not been on his game, alas, for years. He teamed with Bret Easton Ellis for the unsavory sex games/mind games of “The Canyons,” and seemed genuinely shocked when Lindsay Lohan wasn’t professional enough offscreen or talented enough onscreen to make it work.
Although lustrous, sometimes Oscar-winning titles such as “Affliction” and “Cat People” dot his resume, lately, he’s tied his fate to filmdom’s talented but most reliably “direct-to-video” action star, Nicolas Cage.
“Dog Eat Dog” is their second consecutive collaboration, a disturbing, bloody and off-key thriller with surreal comic undertones.
Based on an Edward Bunker novel, it’s about a “crew,” eccentric, chatty and murderous ex-cons who team up for a series of jobs.
Schrader himself plays “El Greco,” “The Greek,” a racist underworld figure who sets up the various assignments.
Cage is Troy, a Bogart-fixated narrator who owes the aptly-named Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) his life. Otherwise, who’d go into business with this psycho? We meet Mad Dog as he’s stuffing his nose with coke, hyped up on a gun-nut TV show, sweet-talking a portly lady friend and killing her and her daughter when she tires of his drug/porn/gun and violence addiction.
Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook of “The Walking Dead”) is their muscle, a supposedly smart guy who keeps getting caught doing stupid things.
Troy is meant to be the sane and stable one, whose job is “to take care of the crew.” But he’s capable of pitiless violence, too.
“I’m gonna blow your backbone out of your belly!
A series of bar scenes establish each and every one of these guys as a talker, a delusional dreamer and a user of women. Diesel works too hard to pick up a barfly (Louisa Krause of “Martha Marcy Mae Marlene”) by extemporizing on casino bartenders and why they won’t serve his whisky “neat.” Troy tries to talk a hooker into flying with him to Nice after his next score. She’s never heard of Nice and is more interested in her cell phone than any plans this trick she’s literally just met has in mind.
Mad Dog, sick on every level, has his own warped code. And he won’t stand for a “Happy Ending” Asian massage in which the masseuse is also distracted by her smart phone.
They’re dead-enders, and their robberies and kidnappings are one-way trips. “We all have two strikes.” It’s succeed or die.
Schrader stages some wonderfully nervy heists — white deplorables hold a black drug dealer hostage in the middle of a neighborhood where they would stand out, even if they weren’t dressed as cops; a “Raising Arizona” kidnapping that begins with somebody’s head exploding from a shotgun blast, and goes downhill from there.
With touches like the fake cop car these dopes create by using duct tape to mimic striping and to spell out the word “P-o-L-I-c-E,” you understand that Schrader wanted this to be funny.
Troy lectures his mates about getting “Samurai Style” serious.
“Jackie Chan,” Mad Dog hisses with an idiotic grin.
The sight gags more ugly than funny. And the finale and coda drift from cops-as-murderous-as-crooks messaging to Cage hallucinating his best Bogie.
Cage and Dafoe never give less than their best, Cook is not bad, though the women aren’t allowed to make any impression at all, and Schrader’s acting just makes one wish he’d called in a favor and gotten a real actor to be The Greek.
The story may be linear and the film brief. But the movie drags, with a ragged, slapdash and random feel to the scenes and how they’re tied together.
If we’re invited, as always, to put the filmmaker on the couch after this one, I have a killer first question for the patient.
“Did it all make sense in your head? And was it funny?”
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence, drug abuse, nudity and sexual situations. And profanity.
Credits:Directed by Paul Schrader, script by Matthew Wilder based on an Edward Bunker novel. An RLJ Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:33