“It’s death or victory”
After forty odd years as a career criminal in-and-out of jail, Edward Bunker changed his life by writing fictionalized accounts of his experiences for a lucrative career as novelist, screenwriter, and eventually actor. He got Danny Trejo a part on a project he wrote entitled Runaway Train after spending time with him in prison and eventually found himself playing Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino‘s debut Reservoir Dogs. It’s been a while since the last movie based on his writing (2000’s Animal Factory) and almost as long since he passed away (2005), but director Paul Schrader and writer Matthew Wilder have brought Bunker back into the spotlight with an adaptation of Dog Eat Dog. Sadly, whether the material’s or the filmmakers’ fault, it never quite finds its footing.
It pains me to say this because Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe provide two unhinged performances that should at least make the film entertaining. It’s difficult to make anything enjoyable when it feels incomplete, though. At times Dog Eat Dog feels like a fever dream of vignettes that don’t actually connect besides the involvement of Cage’s Troy (the brains), Christopher Matthew Cook‘s Diesel (the brawn), and Dafoe’s Mad Dog (the wild card). We don’t know anything about them besides what’s put onscreen and none of that depicts how they met. So what if Mad Dog saved Troy’s life once? We’re supposed to blindly believe in the conceit that they had each other’s backs in prison and therefore do the same out? It’s either convenient or random.
Take the opening scene with a coked-out Mad Dog going crazy in the house of who we assume is his girlfriend Sheila (Chelcie Melton). This is our introduction—Dafoe embracing his character’s insanity for emotion-fueled violence—and yet it’s never mentioned again until the ending. Schrader and Wilder flash-forward a paltry three days and it’s like nothing happened. Suddenly Mad Dog is at a strip club with Diesel and a just-released Troy only for us to discover his murdering psychopath isn’t even the lead of the film. It’s Cage that we hear in voiceover to barely explain why he’s here and who these other people are. He becomes our focal point and bankroller of their amateurish operation without warning and we’re left wondering what the hell is happening.
Everything feels half-baked, like we’re getting part of the story with revelations that never arrive still on the horizon. It’s completely disjointed from what proves to be a non sequitur in that opening prologue to a sequence of color-filtered hedonism in a casino to an impossible conclusion that may or may not be some wild fantasy on the part of the character dreaming about his illogical demise in a blaze of glory. By the end I began feeling as unstable as Mad Dog because I couldn’t make heads or tails of anything. I’d almost forgive it if I discovered Bunker was a contemporary of William S. Burroughs or Hunter S. Thompson and wrote this book between 1955 and 1975, but he didn’t. Dog Eat Dog was published in 1995.
Not only this, reading some passages about the book actually make it out to be this strong literary work that would be perfectly-suited for a Hollywood treatment. So what went wrong? I have to think it was the process of distilling a 240-page novel into what amounts to barely 90-minutes onscreen. It’s as though Schrader and Wilder needed to make things more esoteric and less steeped in reality to get the tone of the work down without necessarily caring about plot. And to some extent that’s an inspired idea. Maybe we can enjoy the insanity of these characters and not care about the validity of their actions. We can embrace their flaws and hubris, watch them implode in lurid detail while everything is tinted in blatant artifice.
It becomes an experimental film with shifts from color to black and white (at one point the present weirdly represented as the latter with memories the former), odd scenes willing to dive deeper into a character’s psyche before being dismissed for more chaos, and a goofily-drawn humor giving the proceedings an air of improvisation. Their first job, for instance, has them tracking down a wannabe rapper for Troy’s “employer” Grecco the Greek (played by Schrader in his first screen role to keep the budget down after a laundry list of friends and collaborators said no). They decide to disguise themselves as cops, itself a farce considering their varying states of composure made worse by a hilariously shoddy sticker job on the side of their car screaming imposters.
This is the stuff we can get behind as a theater-going audience because it’s funny. We can guffaw at Dafoe’s great one-liners (the matter-of-factness of his guess as Cage tries to recall the word “pacifier” is pure gold) and somewhat acknowledge the commentary on police brutality against black men and ubiquity of misogyny if it didn’t often feel as though the filmmakers were using those things to advance the plot rather than educate viewers. The idea that this whole thing occurs in Cleveland of all places supplies another level of strip mall absurdity where a grocery store manager can call the police because of a lie that someone “looks shady” due to his own fear of what might happen. Cleveland is definitely Hell for criminals like Troy.
But this tone isn’t sustained. We receive too many heart-to-hearts like Diesel and a prospective romantic entanglement in Louisa Krause to stop us from just having fun. These moments pretend there’s drama involved, holding promise that there’s more than meets the eye. But again there isn’t enough depth to the main trio to care about them in this way. They are first and foremost idiots set-up to fail despite the central kidnapping scheme being described as a piece of cake. We watch to see them fall apart and yet even that proves mostly unsatisfying. In the end everything is a façade praying no one looks sideways to see how shallow the surface is. This is okay if Schrader throws the kitchen sink. But we only get the microwave.
courtesy of TIFF