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 that Bunker describes in beat-by-beat detail across several pages — 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, inciting a spray of blood; later: “He might as well have turned on a hose.”

To his credit, I guess, Paul Schrader has, in adapting Dog Eat Dog for the screen (from a screenplay by Matthew Wilder), 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: A television blares in the living room where the bloodshed takes place; the surrounding walls are encased in obnoxious pink floral designs; and 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 female 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 Michigan businessman (George C. Scott) encounters his missing daughter in a snuff movie.

Given the tasteless and unforgiving black humor laced throughout Dog Eat Dog, Schrader is likely not aiming for such profound spiritual reckoning, which is fine. But the comparison still does the new movie no favors: Why watch the nihilistic Dog Eat Dog, which doesn’t seem to have more than an ounce of love in it, when Schrader has made so many other movies that deal far more tenderly — and equally brutally — with characters of a similar ilk — his criminals, outsiders and losers?

This list includes Schrader’s two previous movies, The Canyons (2013) and Dying of the Light (2014), and if there can be any justification for Dog Eat Dog’s no-holds-barred nastiness, it’s the fact that both of those flawed but serious projects were received so poorly. Lindsay Lohan lent The Canyons a weary directness that undercut any preconceptions of the movie being a tabloid folly — even as her Tara relaxes in a robe and sips on white wine, Lohan commands the camera with a disarming intensity. And although Dying of the Light contains its share of absurd latter-day Nicolas Cage–isms — a Romanian waiter accosts his character for smoking and he blurts out, “Are you out of your fucking mind? This whole country is a smoking section” — most of the movie sees Cage investing his role as an ailing, past-his-prime, somewhat disgraced CIA agent with an appropriately desperate and poignant urgency.

Credit: Courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

Credit: Courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

Cage is back in Dog Eat Dog, playing 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. After regaining his freedom, Troy is set up by one of his contacts, “El Greco” (played by Schrader in a hoarse-throated cameo), with a job prospect that would seem to be rather harebrained: the kidnapping of a child. But the promised payday is enormous, affording the three men — people who have spent hard time in prison and vowed never to return — a possible path to comfortable retirement.

It’s this latter dimension — the psychological state of the hardened ex-con — that proves richest. In one touching, comic scene of strategizing in a hotel restaurant, Mad Dog rubs his bare feet all over the carpet, waxing fondly over its superiority to the cold, hard floors of life on the inside. (Of course, he describes the prison concrete as having had “boogers and jizz on it” — the movie’s off-putting even when it’s at its warmest.) Unlike much of Dog Eat Dog — a film exemplified by the trio’s crass cavorting with strippers (shot, curiously, in black-and-white) or Mad Dog’s rejection of a masseuse giving him a handjob — the carpet gesture presents a facet of Mad Dog’s weirdness that is worth embracing. It seems, sweetly, as if Schrader wants to both hug and laugh at the man as his toes fondle the carpet.

An even stronger illustration of this psychology comes earlier in the hotel, when a sensitive dynamic develops between the beefy Diesel and the friendly girl (Louisa Krause, from Martha Marcy May Marlene) sitting next to him at the bar. He vents about the establishment’s ice policy, complaining that the bulky cubes ruin his scotch, which makes her laugh. She grabs his arms and says, “Damn, dude, you’re fucking made of rock!” They retreat to Diesel’s room, where she puts on an Elliott Smith song.

Diesel doesn’t know who Smith is, so she quizzes him further about his tastes in music and his interests in general. He doesn’t have a lot to say — not much time in prison for nurturing hobbies and interests that could help him connect with people on the outside. “I don’t hang out to have fun,” he says, before adding, “I don’t have fucking friends.” Weirded out, the girl moves to leave; Diesel tries to stop her, before realizing that it’s hopeless. This is sad, true stuff — and one of the few scenes in Dog Eat Dog that feels as if it ends too soon.

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