Hot in Cleveland: Schrader Returns with Gritty, Entertaining Crime Drama
The dog days aren’t over, or so it would seem in director Paul Schrader’s glorious return to hard-edged genre with Dog Eat Dog, which plays like a gritty throwback to crime dramas the esteemed writer/director was once celebrated for. The past decade has been a difficult one for the offbeat auteur to navigate, a scribe interested in the subversive underbelly of human nature, the man who penned Taxi Driver (1974), and had a succession of his own greats, such as American Gigolo (1980), or the bleak and hellish Hardcore (1979). After a highly publicized tailspin regarding the stunted release of his crowd funded 2013 Lindsay Lohan starrer The Canyons, more extreme setbacks ruined his 2014 drama The Dying of the Light when the studio took the Nicolas Cage starrer out of his hands and recut it. If anything, his latest film, which concerns a trio of ex-cons in Cleveland looking to score one last cash windfall so they can afford to finally play it straight, is proof of his commitment to a pronouncedly old-school aesthetic, where entertaining narratives and characters mingle and interact without compromising the integrity of either to be mainstream or likeable.
While crashing at his girlfriend Sheila’s (Chelcie Melton), loose cannon ex-con Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) murders her and her teenage daughter in a drug fueled rage over a banal disagreement. Unfazed by his actions, he attends a planned rendezvous at a strip joint with Diesel (Christopher Cook) to greet their old prison pal Troy (Nicolas Cage), who has just been released. Since all of them are two strike felons, they realize they can’t afford to get nicked again and so decide to pull of one major job which will allow them the required funds to become legitimate. A Cleveland mob boss known as The Greek (Paul Schrader) clues them on to a pair of schemes doomed to failure for multiple reasons, and soon the three amigos find themselves with their backs against the wall.
The real scene stealer here is Willem Dafoe, a gone-to-seed ex-con who bears all the ear marks of victimhood, spewing out the sort of whiny, selfish helplessness of one who blames the rest of the world for his troubles. His presence makes Dog Eat Dog feel a bit like the wormy, decomposed sequel to Schrader’s 1992 Light Sleeper. Dafoe’s contorted visage gets his own private, idiosyncratic moments during a sequence where he gets high in the bathroom, recalling a history of such cinematic moments involving the prolific performer, like in Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) or David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). As his foil, Nicolas Cage is the brains of their operation, though he’s so consumed with aspiring to be an amalgamation of cinematic Humphrey Bogart personas (which comes to a head in the deliciously shot finale) he doesn’t have the sort of grasp he should on Christopher Cook’s Diesel or Dafoe’s Mad Dog.
From the delirious opening moments however, we know their operation will be cursed thanks to Mad Dog’s uncontrollable rage. An ill-advised shakedown orchestrated by Paul Schrader (he’s a nice on-screen touch) as a gravel voiced Cleveland mobster, provides the film’s most uncomfortable moments as the trio pose as policeman squeezing a local musical artist played by Omar J. Dorsey. The menace of white men in uniform beating and abusing black characters may play a bit more viscerally than was initially intended (although the tables do get turned, to a degree at least, later on).
Following the disappointing haul from their first dismal take, innate character flaws cause each to have their separate meltdowns, especially after a disastrous kidnapping lands them into a bizarre karmic bind transpiring outside of a grocery store. A heavy dose of cynicism and misanthropy (along with an amusing thread regarding Taylor Swift) aids rather than detracts from this garrulous throwback’s sleazy, low-budget presentation. But first time DP Alexander Dynan manages a few tricks, with well-executed action sequences played for comedic relief rather than thrills, culminating in a strange and surreal nightmare of an ending in a creeping blue and red fog.
Matthew Wilder adapts Edward Bunker’s 1995 novel, but it seems clear Schrader allowed his cast to invent their own peripheral details, with Cage and Dafoe providing a putrid yet hypnotizing combination as a couple dogs determined to to have their day. Their only real problem is they are under the impression they’re allotted more than their fair share. “I just wanted what I wanted,” Troy explains in his narration. We all wish in one hand, but for Troy and co., this isn’t the hand that fills up first.