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Cannes 2016: Nic Cage and Wilem Dafoe go bonkers in Paul Schrader's violent crime movie

Paul Schrader’s last movie, Dying Of The Light, was taken off him and recut so significantly that both he and star Nicolas Cage disowned it. Determined to put things right, they reteam on gonzo crime thriller Dog Eat Dog, with a shoestring budget and crew of hungry hopefuls giving them the leniency and energy to do whatever the hell they please.

The result is, to put it mildly, batshit crazy, and if you want to know just how batshit crazy we’re talking, then consider this: Cage does his wacko thing, this time doing an impression of Humphrey Bogart, yet he’s the straight guy here compared to Willem Dafoe’s coke-snorting, shotgun-blasting caricature goon. Schrader’s one direction before every scene, he explained at the Q&A following the film’s screening in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, was “Don’t be boring”, and you can imagine the result: saying “Don’t be boring” to these two guys is like saying “Please eat up” to Mr. Creosote. 

Based on a novel by real-life crim Eddie Bunker, who of course played Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, one of many influences here, Dog Eat Dog charts ex-cons Mad Dog (Dafoe), Troy (Cage) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) as they kidnap a baby (shades of Raising Arizona) in search of one last jackpot. Everything of course goes royally tits up, starting with Mad Dog blowing the head clean off the shoulders of the guy they’re meant to be squeezing for the ransom.

The ensuing crackpot carnage will play like a deconstruction of the crime movie to cineastes, and a WTF?! thrill ride to viewers after a Friday night blast of entertainment. Taking pretty much every trope, tic and staple of the genre from The Great Train Robbery to GoodFellas via the Warner Bros cycle in the ‘30s and film noir and the French New Wave and New Hollywood and beyond, Schrader turns everything upside down and inside out. 

Again talking in the Q&A, the director said he approached Dog Eat Dog in the manner that Brando explored acting – to think how other people would do it and then do the opposite. And so we have scenes in a strip club that are shot in black-and-white because, like, who does that? A ballistic shootout is drenched in dreamy colours and poetic slo-mo to lend a magical realism to the brutality. And a spectacularly nasty prologue is pure sitcom, the pink home furnishings sprayed with claret.

This last was done in Natural Born Killers, and there’s a fair bit of overlap between Stone’s deranged 1994 movie, with its kaleidoscopic styles, and Dog Eat Dog, highlighting that Schrader’s determination to do things differently is perhaps not as original or as successful as he thinks. A further downside is that sometimes the choices are so nonsensical they just come off as the ill-judgements of someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing. This is certainly not the case given some of the excellent movies that Schrader’s directed (Blue Collar, Light Sleeper, Affliction) and the even better ones he’s written (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). 

Still, at its best Dog Eat Dog is a red-blooded, gonzo crime thriller that has little time for anything so polite as taste. As such, it’s exactly the kind of film that Cannes needs from time to time, offering as it does a couple of hours of crazily obnoxious genre fare before everyone settles back down to watch the new Farhadi. 

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