‘Dog Eat Dog’
Director: Paul Schrader
Stars:
Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Even if you’ve only seen one Paul Schrader film, you won’t expect the opening to “Dog Eat Dog.” You won’t even recognize it as a Paul Schrader film. In a hepped-up scene that periodically swaps in pink and blue filters, Willem Dafoe plays an on-edge ne’er-do-well with eyes tattooed on the bottom of his chin. He hears voices even before he engages in a tetchy election-year phonecall from “John Aloysius McCain.” There are broad digs at gun nuts, Christians and racist rednecks, and it all ends with Dafoe gruesomely murdering the woman who’s put him up, followed by her teenage daughter. And it’s all of it, even the killing, played for a laugh.

It’s a barnstormer — a shrill horrorshow meant to separate the weak from the chaff. But it functions even better as a barnburner. In just five minutes, which resembles nothing Schrader’s ever done, the director of heavy, anguished studies of self-destruction, like “American Gigolo,” “Mishima” and “Affliction,” commits self-arson — burning himself down along with the movies that have made his life hell. And no wonder: Schrader, who only fit in with Hollywood during the auteur ’70s, has had it hard over the last decade-plus. Even escaping into the strange and byzantine world of international financing has been a pain. His last film, “The Dying of the Light,” was famously re-cut by producers, prompting Schrader and his star, Nicolas Cage, to disown it. They wanted to try again, this time with final cut. The result, impossible to expect, is almost as weird as Nicolas Cage himself, and that’s before the actor launches into an epic Bogie impersonation for no discernible reason than why the hell not.

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“Why the hell not?” seems to be the motivating factor powering every decision made during “Dog Eat Dog.” What’s funnier is it could have been a simple gutter noir. The source is a novel by Eddie Bunker, the thief-turned-novelist (and later “Reservoir Dog” actor), and the setup promises a “Friends of Eddie Coyle”-style bummer. A trio of thieves, led by sharp-dressed Nicolas Cage and filled out by psycho Dafoe and luggish muscle Christopher Matthew Cook, get involved in one of those last big scores, then screw it up before we even realize it’s started. These sleazeballs are lifers, and like most lifers they delude themselves into thinking they’ll be the ones — the only ones, ever — to get away clean.

But having cinema’s millionth gang of deluding gangsters isn’t good enough for Schrader. In interviews, he’s talked about trying to imagine what a crime film looks like in 2016. It can’t be Tarantino-cool. It can’t be Guy Ritchie-flashy. It certainly can’t be melancholic and whiskey-soaked, like the ones made when Schrader was starting out. It’s as though he tried to answer this question, threw his arms in the air then lobbed a bomb. And so “Dog Eat Dog” winds up being a mad hodgepodge of anything he could think of. Every scene is different from the last. Sometimes it’s self-aware, a lampoon, mocking criminals and the movie’s own existence. Sometimes it looks like outtakes from a “Natural Born Killers” ripoff that never happened. It can be hyper-designed, and it can be listless, with all the juice and careful framing of a b-trash noir from the 1950s. There’s no consistent vision — just stuff thrown at the screen, as if the entire cast and crew had the disease from “Memento” and each day arrived on set, forgetting which movie they had been making.

We mean that as a compliment: Once you realize “Dog Eat Dog” is supposed to be a movie with no center of gravity, it’s all easy, fun even, to go with the flow, even expect that, say, the resolution of the kidnapping plot will fizzle out, as though the resolution was left on the cutting room floor or, better yet, never even shot. It seems Schrader’s answer to what a crime film in 2016 should look like is that it shouldn’t exist, at least in no form that resembles any that came before. So here’s some shards of what the genre used to be at various times over the century, anchored by no less than Nicolas Cage, and not even at his shoutiest or tic-iest (though weird enough to close out the movie doing Bogart). In his youth, Schrader wrote a book on the “transcendental style” of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer. It’s fascinating to note that, at 70, he’s made his Godard film. This is his “Week-End” — a cine-apocalypse instigated by a filmmaker so he can start anew. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it might be funniest if it was a return to form.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge