Edward Bunker spent his early life in and out of prison until getting released for the last time in 1975. He would become a writer and publish his first novel No Beast So Fierce in 1973 which was later adapted into the film Straight Time starring Dustin Hoffman. It remains Dustin Hoffman’s finest performance and the best film ever made about being a ex-convict. He would achieve a new-found celebrity when Quentin Tarantino casted him as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. His novel Animal Factory was adapted by his Dogs co-star Steve Buscemi in 2000 and remains one of the best prison films of recent years, it also starred Willem Dafoe.
Now one of his lesser known novels Dog Eat Dog gets the big screen treatment thanks to a blackly comedic script by Matthew Wilder. It’s directed by Paul Schrader who hasn’t been this exciting in decades and seems like the work of a young man not one who just turned 70. The story like all of Bunker’s work is about criminals facing the outside world and how the criminal exists outside of that society. Nicolas Cage plays the Bogart worshipping Troy and Willem Dafoe plays his violently unhinged but strangely sweet friend Mad Dog. They join up with Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) who is built like a brick shithouse to perform a heist.
The mobster Greco the Greek sets up the heist for them which involves kidnapping the baby of a rival mobster but naturally everything doesn’t go quite to plan. They are forced into increasingly ridiculous situations by the unfolding events and the cops are never far behind. This is heightened by Schrader who makes the film increasingly stylised which climaxes in a mist of red smog which is reminiscent of the use of colour in his earlier films Cat People and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Schrader also plays the Greek after his old friend Martin Scorsese couldn’t fit it in his schedule.
Schrader and Cage had a terrible experience on their previous collaboration Dying of the Light, the film was taken away from them in the editing room. It some ways it’s them making up for that film because they can totally indulge but by indulging they are able to do their best work in years. Schrader has never made a full on crime film so he studied crime films and looked at what worked and what didn’t and then put his own unique spin on it. The most overt influence is Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared which has a similar kinetic energy to it.
The two performances from Cage and Dafoe show two completely fearless actors at the top of their game. Cage who is known for his “overacting” gets a perfect balance here with the right amount of insanity the character requires but never goes into “Not the bees” territory. Originally Cage was offered the more over the top role of Mad Dog but his decision to play against type was the correct one.
Dafoe has been Schrader’s go to actor since starring in Light Sleeper. He has the more showy role due to the over the top nature of the character’s behaviour. Despite chewing the scenery to a spectacle degree he brings a tender side which only an actor of his caliber could’ve. He ends up stealing every scene and the opening scene alone needs to be seen to be believed. Christopher Matthew Cook is fairly new to the screen but adds a real physicality to the role and his presence grounds both Cage and Dafoe as much as possible.
Dog Eat Dog is a rare masterwork of an older filmmaker who was considered by many to be well past his prime. Schrader seems totally reinvigorated by making Dog Eat Dog after a two failures in a row. Cage who is more recent years with a handful of exceptions (such as Joe) has given less than stellar performances. Here however he gives one of his finest performances which shows a matured actor but it’s also clearly the same guy who made Red Rock West and Wild At Heart so great. One of the very best films of the year and it’s bound to divide critics and audiences alike but that’s a good thing.