“We first make our habits, and then they make us”
What’s your version of Nicolas Cage? Are you the kind of person that sees him as the guy who interspliced Moonstruck and Raising Arizona with campy genre fair? The guy who did a David Lynch movie and Zandalee within one year of each other? Or are you the kind of person who sees Cage as autocritique Nic Cage: the present iteration that could completely and sincerely do The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent due to the meme-like nature of who he has become?
Me? I’m neither. My Nic Cage is Knowing Nic Cage, from a time when he was just below an A-list star. What I’ve always wanted is Cage to be somewhere in-between where he came from, and where he is now. Andy Samberg’s SNL rendition of Cage was humorous because it wasn’t real, it was hyperbole. No, Nic Cage doesn’t actually choose films along the criteria of “do the actors get paid.”
The more I’ve thought about Sympathy for the Devil in the prevailing week since I’ve seen it, the more I feel that it really doesn’t work. Cage is a producer on the film. It will almost entirely be sold on the back of Cage’s star. There are people now for whom Nic Cage films are events in and of itself. It used to be hyperbole; now Sympathy for the Devil is hyperbole becoming reality.
Director Yuval Adler struggles to keep Cage effectively contained or directed. This time around, Nic plays a character known as “The Passenger,” so dubbed because he’s the passenger to Joel Kinnaman’s Driver character. The Passenger is convinced that The Driver wronged him in the past. Thus, he holds him at gunpoint on the night of his daughter’s birth and forces him to drive out into the desert. Presumably, it’s for an execution. Really, this role is just the usual stuff: a manic, wronged, cackling, scenery-chewing maniac. It was ridiculous when this guy spent the back half of a Panos Cosmatos movie snorting cocaine off a glass shard and frenziedly screaming at someone for ripping his shirt.
You’d be mistaken, however, if you were to call Sympathy for the Devil all T-shirt scenes. Or all alphabet scenes, or all whatever your favourite freak out is. There’s a shot early on in the film where the Passenger looks out the window. And there, he sees the words TRAUMA emblazoned in Red on the side of the hospital wing. In essence, this acts as an epigraph. Trauma, and the response to it, largely dictates what Adler wants to do.
Really, the issue is that Sympathy for the Devil is too close to what I’ve wanted Cage to be for so long, but packaged inside what he’s been doing for the last five or six years. This isn’t quite bad enough to be cult-y, but isn’t good enough to actually be good. Somewhere, a monkey’s paw curls. Largely, this ineffectiveness coalesces around the film’s weak script. There are a number of choice Cage 1-liners here, but I can’t actually remember them. What this suggests is that the film is performing what it believes a Nic Cage film should look like, sound like, be like.
Sympathy for the Devil’s mystery revolves around whether or not The Driver is who The Passenger says he is. It’s relatively obvious that there’s something The Driver is not letting on. Kinnaman has a relatively thankless task as the straight man opposite Cage. By golly does he try, but the script largely leaves him incapable of doing anything of substance. Most of the scenes within this film follow a very specific formula: The Passenger orders The Driver to do something, The Driver tries to stoically refuse, The Passenger has a freak out and then The Driver complies. Rinse and repeat for roughly ninety minutes and you have the general bones of Sympathy for the Devil. It’s more tiresome than compelling, a clear example of why actors rarely make great auteurs.
The film flounders until it reaches its third act, where the reveal actually happens. There’s a phenomenon that exists where the end of the film really should be its midpoint. The best example I can think of is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a film that stops just short of what would be an answer to its most interesting question. Anderson’s intent is far more cerebral than Adler’s. I’ll state the obvious and point out that it’s not exactly a fair fight—PTA is one of the legends of modern cinema. But Sympathy for the Devil’s struggle to get to where it needs to get to is exactly that: a struggle.
The third act is at least interesting enough to salvage some of the picture. By virtue of some small twists that I can’t really mention due to spoiling the picture, Cage is forced to be subdued in film’s protracted coda. All of a sudden, the film can breathe. Kinnaman is able to play off of Cage as opposed to reacting solely to him. It’s a minor miracle, and mildly infuriating. There’re some minor technical failures that grate; namely, the film’s mix is borderline incomprehensible at points. Still, when the film breathes, it kind of works. Unfortunately, the spends too much of its run time trying to hold its breath and frenetically flap its arms while running in a circle.
- Rated: R
- Genre: Thriller
- Directed by: Yuval Adler
- Starring: Alexis Zollicoffer, Burns Burns, Cameron Lee Price, Joel Kinnaman, Nicolas Cage, Oliver McCallum, Rich Hopkins
- Produced by: Aaron Collins, Alex Lebovici, Allan Ungar, David Haring, David Hillary, Nicolas Cage, Sam Patton, Stuart Manashil
- Written by: Luke Paradise
- Studio: Capstone Global, Hammerstone Studios, Signature Films