Every few years, Nicolas Cage reminds us what a compelling screen performer he is and can be. While such reminders seem fewer and further between, the utter expendability of much of his recent filmography make strong performances like his brooding lead in David Gordon Green’s Joe all the more powerful – not because we forgot about Cage’s talents, but because we’re afraid that he might have.
Joe has been deemed (by this site and others) to be a “return to form” for Cage. It’s easy to declare with a handful of titles what form Cage is returning to. In celebrated roles like Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas, and Bringing Out the Dead Cage has displayed an uncanny ability to balance pathological self-destruction with varying undertones of dark comedy. He is the actor of choice for men who struggle outside the norms of society, yet wouldn’t feel comfortable anywhere else.
But outside of The Wicker Man, mesmerizing mash-ups, and whatever he was doing in Face-Off, it’s perhaps harder to concisely define the form that Cage is returning from when making films like Joe, despite the fact that it’s Cage’s more forgettable (and sometimes more batshit) work that creates the rule which highlights welcome exceptions. A recent, unofficial trilogy of particularly Cagean works speaks volumes to the one-of-a-kind spot that Cage’s stardom finds itself in now.
While these films do not share a producer, a studio, or any other factor that justifies their making beyond their existence as Nicolas Cage vehicles, Trespass, Stolen, and Seeking Justice (titles that are so boldly generic as to be nearly interchangeable) share such direct similarities that, once seen together, render them impossible to separate.
All of these films were shot in Louisiana (the former in Shreveport, the latter two on location in New Orleans), the state in which Cage once famously owned the “most haunted house in America.” Furthermore, these films all carried a production budget of a modest Hollywood genre vehicle (in the tens of millions), yet none reached a half million domestically; they were all unceremoniously dumped into theaters by their respective distributors in 2011 and 2012.
And yet each carries a pedigree that suggests an attempted appeal to mainstream audiences – or, at least, whatever audiences actually showed up for Season of the Witch. Trespass is a home invasion thriller directed by Joel Schumacher and co-stars Nicole Kidman. Stolen is a crime thriller directed by Simon West and co-starring Josh Lucas, Malin Akerman, and Danny Huston. And Seeking Justice is a wrong-man suspense film this side of carbon copy Hitchcock directed by Roger Donaldson and co-starring January Jones alongside Guy Pearce as a scenery-chewing baddie.
The fact that none of these films are very good (though all are their own kind of watchable) doesn’t fully explain the almost identical bad faith of their approximate releases. The invisible means by which these films came and went from theaters clearly does not reflect the intent of their design. The films included in what I’m calling the “Trouble in Louisiana” trilogy were certainly engineered to be forgettable, but – as they aren’t the work of first-time filmmakers and don’t bear the stamp of an uncommercial passion project – one must assume they were at least made to be profitably forgettable. Instead, Trespass broke the record for the fastest film to see a home video release after its theatrical debut, making the jump from silver screen to laptop in only 18 days. Stolen was pulled from theaters after two weeks, and Seeking Justice after three.
And then there are the plots. In each of these films, Cage’s character is put in a time-sensitive position in which he must defend himself, his loved ones, and all he holds dear from the threat of violence against a woman in his immediate family – his wife (Seeking Justice), his daughter (Stolen), or his wife and his daughter (Trespass). Whether he’s the glitz’d out realtor of Trespass, the redeemed career criminal of Stolen, or the high school English teacher (!) of Seeking Justice, Cage must invariably use his seemingly fearless masculinity in order to save a damsel in distress and restore order and contentment to the universe.
These genre conceits feel cribbed and anachronistic, as if adapted from early drafts of ‘80s Schwarzenegger films, complete with a distant husband whose work prevents him from quality time with his family to a “bad guy” so caricatured that we have to take the characters’ word for it when they claim he’s threatening. Yet at the time, these films gesture (in a perfunctory effort at depth) to the drama taking place within Cage’s psyche. He’s a man burdened by the serious subjects that mobilize these three stories – rape, mental illness, and child kidnapping – yet the films never take stock in his burden, all weighing as light as a feather while fully earning their R ratings. On occasion, the trilogy’s paint-by-numbers approach to suspense treads slightly above mid-season CBS drama-level stakes and into something angrier, something stranger. Something more Cagean:
In short, these are generic, expendable Hollywood byproducts whose mundanity and tedium are occasionally interrupted with Cage performing in that uncanny, self-mocking yet somehow earnest way that only Cage can pull off. In his comprehensive career overview, Alex Pappademas said of Seeking Justice, “His work is still fascinating to observe even when it looks like work. Some actors make their acting invisible; Cage makes you think about what acting is and how weird it must be to do it for a living.” This is due, in part, to the fact that the films themselves are skeletons of “actual films,” allowing Cage to roam through them as Nicolas Cage, never as a fully fleshed character.
Cage performs all the motions and signs of existing in a film while never fully assuming any of them. Trespass, Stolen, and Seeking Justice all look and feel like movies, and all share the factors that make for legitimate filmmaking, yet none of them take themselves seriously enough to bother convincing anyone that the world they portray exists beyond the costumes and setpieces. Never have I been able to imagine more clearly the lunch table and the talent trailers sitting offscreen. These are not parodies or ironic subversions of your generic action thriller, but something odder and emptier. They feel like imposters made to exist in a world of another film. If Nicolas Cage were to play a Last Action Hero version of himself, these are the types of films that his character would make, films that we would otherwise only see out-of-context clips of.
Had the Trouble in Louisiana trilogy been made before Cage’s masterful, crazed performance in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, that 2009 role would have felt even more like a dark, hypnotizing meta-treatment of Cage’s outlandish, outsized onscreen persona – a glorious middle finger to any criticism or snark or ironic appreciation regularly leveled at “Nicolas Cage.” But each of Cage’s returns to form carries the promise that he will gravitate once again back to making more forgettable work many times over (he is currently slated to update Kirk Cameron’s role in a new reboot of Left Behind). And despite his monetary and legal troubles, Cage’s filmography doesn’t suggest that he chooses such an idiosyncratic slate of roles primarily because of the potential paycheck they offer.
The Trouble in Louisiana trilogy encapsulates the current state of Cage’s career because these three films produce an inevitable question: Why?
Why did Cage not only make one but three seemingly effort-free mash-ups of the thriller genre? Why does Cage choose the work he chooses at all? How does he see his screen persona, and his choice of work fitting into that?
Nicolas Cage isn’t interesting because his often unrestrained performance style makes for a formidable Internet cult, or even because he’s a talented performer ostensibly trapped in a system where he must work for a living. Nicolas Cage is interesting because his decision-making as an actor is so often counterintuitive and inexplicable. He’s compelling to watch not despite but because of films like those that make up the Trouble in Louisiana trilogy, films that demonstrate his continued practice of straying away from “form” in between occasional returns.