The last time Paul Schrader teamed up with Nicolas Cage, it resulted in 2014's Dying of the Light, a potentially interesting character study - centred on a battle-scarred surveillance operative - that found itself recut by hit-seeking producers into a straightforward shoot-'em-up, leading to a very public and vocal slanging match between everybody concerned. Cage and Schrader stuck together as shit hit fan, however, and evidently resolved to do their own thing the next time they found themselves working together. Cut to: this week's Dog Eat Dog, Schrader's new movie starring Cage, which indeed has the look of one of those "fuck it", filter-off projects creatives often thrash out whenever they're pissed off with the ways of the world, or the state of the industry.
Adapted by Matthew Wilder from an Eddie Bunker novel, Dog is ripe for claiming as another of Schrader's ongoing portraits of flawed-to-toxic masculinity (think Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper or Affliction), but also delights in the kind of tough-talking and gunplay that gets crime thrillers sold to video-on-demand platforms and occasionally secures their directors a hit. So here are a pair of washed-up, middle-aged crims, reunited after a stretch in prison with the not-so-bright idea of shaking down a rich divorce lawyer by kidnapping his kid. Cage's Troy, a wannabe high-roller who fancies himself a latter-day Bogart, is notionally the brains of the operation, though he's prone to peacocking in suits loud enough to set off any police radar; his partner is Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), a terminal no-hoper with severe anger management issues, first witnessed stabbing his girlfriend to death.
These are almost certainly not guys whose company you'd willingly seek out, nor indeed whom you'd trust with the safekeeping of a kid. Schrader catches them in their natural habitat, the stripjoint, tossing the N-word around, talking big, and yet all available evidence points to them being men hopelessly out of time, in both senses of the expression. They're not on Facebook; they have no clue who Taylor Swift is; they are utterly lost at sea with the opposite sex. Crime is all they've known, and the one thing they still vaguely know how to do - though even in this field, they come to find themselves outmuscled by the young punks who've moved into the projects during their spell behind bars.
Gradually, Dog Eat Dog expands beyond its genre confines to present as another in the recent run of Trump-age cultural artefacts in which white male characters of a certain age - surrogates, perhaps, for the ageing Caucasians behind the camera - strive to make peace with the fact the world is no longer theirs. Schrader being Schrader, Dog Eat Dog is inevitably several degrees saltier and scuzzier than, say, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino or Woody Allen's recent Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes: we see more of the assembled cocktail waitresses' behinds than we ever do of their faces, although in mitigation, Schrader's making the point this may be a consequence of these women turning their backs on his characters.
There's shadier material here than the post-Tarantino crime flick has traditionally accommodated, certainly - Troy's beatdown at the hands (and feet) of two cops is transformed into another of Schrader's occasional mortifications of the flesh - yet overall, we're witnessing a filmmaker whose up-down career has generated plentiful sturm-und-drang both before and behind the scenes actively enjoying himself. Though beyond redemption in many respects, these clowns remain pretty funny to look at; while every bit as damned as the lost and lonely souls who haunted this director's earlier works, they have unexpected, colourful-colloquial means of expressing themselves. (They, too, are raging against the dying of the light - but they're doing so with squirt guns and custard pies.)
It's some measure of how much fun Schrader is having that he, too, comes to appear in front of the camera, playing "The Greek", his crooks' contact with the underworld; he's literally giving the orders here, and you sense him working closely with two favourite actors in the margins to which they've all been exiled. In a spot of counterintuitive casting, Dafoe is handed the stock Cage role of off-the-hook livewire, and he revels in it in a way this actor hasn't been allowed to since Wild at Heart: Mad Dog is established from the word go as a grotesque buffoon, the kind of blowhard blabbermouth who won't shut up even after he's fallen several floors onto a concrete floor during a botched shot at corpse-concealing.
Cage, for his part, appears a little more modulated - crafty, even - than he has in his recent vehicles: for once, his sudden, wild flourishes serve to speak less to an actor's tics than a character's abject desperation to make an impression on an indifferent universe, and there's something touching, if not transcendent, in the way Schrader finally permits Troy to play Bogart - to cling to his white-knight fantasies, even as reality dooms him to a different fate. Like Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - one of the past decade's least heralded masterpieces - this is an unusually energised film for a man of pensionable age to have put together, one that suggests something you'd have thought inconceivable as the credits rolled on Schrader's last few films: that this is a director in rude health, who might still have a career if he stuck at it.
Dog Eat Dog opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on January 2.