Edward Bunker's novel Dog Eat Dog (1996) kicks off with a disgusting sequence in which a two-bit criminal named Gerald "Mad Dog" McCain -- caught up in a cocaine binge -- stabs his girlfriend and her daughter to death in a fit of rage. "It was as if he'd stabbed a wine sack," Bunker writes as Mad Dog pushes the knife into his lover's neck. To his credit, I guess, Paul Schrader has, in adapting Dog Eat Dog for the screen, not shied away from moments like these -- episodes that repel both physically and morally. His version of the scene is arguably even more unpleasant than Bunker's: Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), a good deal shorter than his girlfriend, has to leap up onto her back in order to kill her.
This exploitative quality isn't necessarily a new element to Schrader's work, but Dog Eat Dog feels more mean-spirited than usual. This opening, with its denigrating and summarily dispensed women roles, and with Dafoe's energetic but empty characterization, doesn't land with the emotional force of, say, the agonizing scene in Schrader's Hardcore (1979) in which a straitlaced businessman (George C. Scott) encounters his missing daughter in a snuff movie.
Nicolas Cage plays the relative center of gravity. His Troy, a dapperly dressed career criminal just released from prison, is the disciplined organizational mind around which Dafoe's Mad Dog and big-boned "Diesel" (Christopher Matthew Cook) operate. What's never clear: Why watch the nihilistic Dog Eat Dog, which doesn't seem to have more than an ounce of love in it, when Schrader has other movies that deal far more tenderly with his criminals and losers?