Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 19, 2016)
If you look at the AFI 100 list, you’ll find 1980’s Raging Bull at #4 and 1976’s Taxi Driver at #52. Paul Schrader wrote the screenplays to both films, but to my surprise, he nabbed an Oscar for neither one.
More shocking: Schrader wasn’t even nominated for his work on either Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. This fact stuns me – how could the two films receive so much acclaim – including Best Picture nods - but earn no credit for the screenwriter?
Schrader eventually moved to the director’s chair, which is where we find him for 2016’s direct-to-video crime drama Dog Eat Dog. Criminal boss El Greco (Schrader) needs some work done for him, so he hires three recent ex-cons to perform various misdeeds.
Though Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) risk severe punishment via “Three Strikes” laws, they grab these chances. To the surprise of no one, matters fail to go as planned.
Earlier I mentioned my surprise that Schrader never earned an Oscar for his work. Now I think this may have been good, for if Schrader had nabbed a trophy, he’d have to give it back to atone for the atrocity he commits with Dog Eat Dog.
Woof – what a mess! Schrader did excellent work as a writer in prior decades, but as a director in 2016, he fails, and he fails miserably.
Initially I laid some of the blame on writer Matthew Wilder’s script. I gave him “credit” for the film’s awkward, incompetent story with inconsistent characters and a narrative that lacks movement or flow.
However, a listen to Schrader’s commentary reveals that Wilder may not be particularly culpable. Schrader leaves the impression that he deviated from the screenplay a lot of the time, so most of the film’s issues seem to come from Schrader’s take on the material and not the original script.
Whoever caused this mess, we get many scenes with no obvious purpose. For instance, we find a long sequence in which our three leads try to get some action at a casino.
The segment goes on forever and does nothing to connect us to or really learn about the roles. These moments just dawdle and go nowhere, like most of the tale.
Again, it’s unclear how much of this comes from the script, but whatever the case, the buck stops with the director, as he/she bears the responsibility to right any potential screenplay wrongs. This burden seems especially clear when the director earned his acclaim as a writer – you know, someone like Paul Schrader.
Alas, Schrader makes matters worse via his borderline incompetent direction. Schrader opts for a heavily stylized feel that never works. His choices come across as pointless and gratuitous, and they can actively distract at times.
For instance, look at the first meeting between El Greco and Troy. For these shots, Schrader chooses to isolate each actor in the extreme side of the screen, which leaves lots of dead space. Perhaps this intends to show the characters’ psychic isolation or some BS such as that, but instead, it just looks like Schrader didn’t know how to fill the frame.
Tonally, Dog flies all over the place, as Schrader wears cinematic influences on his sleeve – and his leg, and his chest, and everywhere else. It feels like Schrader took bits and pieces from Mann, Soderbergh, Scorsese, Tarantino, Ritchie and the Coens, plopped it all in a blender and out came this erratic mess.
Some actual narrative flow would help. When the tone and style shift radically so often – and for such little purpose – the result can’t feel anything other than incoherent.
Even at a mere 93 minutes, Dog Eats Dog overstays its welcome. The movie rambles along without much logic and never vaguely resembles a dynamic, involving story. Put bluntly, it’s awful.