At approximately 12:05am Saturday morning, TIFF’s Midnight Madness audience will know they’re in the right place when they’re treated to one of the most insane opening scenes ever put on screen. Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Edward Bunker’s novel Dog Eat Dog opens with the brilliant Willem Dafoe as a drug-addled lunatic (whom we soon find out goes by the name “Mad Dog”… no surprise there) binging on cocaine, heroin, and daytime TV. When his girlfriend comes home and starts giving him shit for looking at porn on her computer… well, I won’t tell you what happens after that but damn, what a way to get everyone’s attention right at the outset.
The only people that could be friends with a guy like Mad Dog are Troy (Nicolas Cage) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), who mostly just tolerates him. The three did a stint in prison together where Mad Dog did something mad for Troy, forever ingratiating himself to the con. As free men, they sloppily pull off any jobs that pay, trying to find that one last job that they can retire on, because that always works out so well.
While it may sound like a typical setup, the film is rather formless in an exciting way. It’s as though each con is in their own movie, or in their own head at least. Troy is always going on about old gangster movies and Cage gets to ham it up like Jimmy Cagney, though Troy would probably prefer you compare him to Bogart. Mad Dog wants to work on himself, but it’s too late for that. And Diesel, well, Diesel doesn’t say much, so the other two assume he’s the smart one.
The violence isn’t constant, but it’s always lingering over their heads (particularly the aforementioned opening scene). More than anything, Dog Eat Dog is a dark comedy, one of the darkest I’ve ever seen, with Dafoe stealing the show and getting all of the biggest laughs. People may take issue with the film’s treatment of women and minorities, but it’s too overt to not be intentional. Many viewers will write this film off after they see the slow motion close up of Troy’s fist connecting with a policewoman’s jaw, but in an age where people are extremely sensitive about this kind of thing, here’s a film that just doesn’t give a fuck. One thing’s for sure, there’s no love for law enforcement in the film, best illustrated when the trio dons cop uniforms for a job and acts with reckless impunity. These themes were likely present in criminal-turned-novelist Edward Bunker’s original text.
Not everything in Dog Eat Dog works, but you have to give the 70-year-old Schrader credit for playing with form and experimenting in ways usually only new filmmakers do.
Friday Sept. 16, 11:59pm @ Ryerson
Saturday Sept. 17, 6:45pm @ Bloor Hot Docs
Sunday Sept. 18, 3:45pm @ Scotiabank 12