‘Dying of the Light’ Review: Nicolas Cage Almost Saves This Mess
Grindstone Entertainment Group
With Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, The Last Temptation of Christ and more, screenwriter Paul Schrader is responsible for a handful of classics. As a director though, he hasn’t made a great film since 2002’s Auto Focus. His last directorial effort, The Canyons, wasn’t half as interesting as the gossip surrounding the project. The same can almost be said for his latest picture, Dying of the Light, a movie that was taken away from Schrader – scored, mixed, and re-cut without him. The troubled production is apparent in the final product.
Written by Schrader, Dying of the Light is centered around a veteran CIA agent, Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage), who’s displeased with his current position. The former field operative wasn’t meant to be stuck in an office, but his superiors are wary of his obsession that began 22 years prior with Lake being tortured by a terrorist, Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim). The terrorist is presumed dead, but the aging agent believes Banir escaped. Cutting to present day, Lake, with the help of a young colleague, Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin), goes after Banir. To up the ante, there’s a ticking clock for both Lake and Banir: they’re sick. Lake suffers from frontotemporal dementia, making him prone to outbursts, shaky hands and more.
After this set up another battle begins – a tug and pull between a mostly standard thriller and a thoughtful character study. More often than not, the former film wins out. The conventional thrills – lots of quick cutting action scenes – drain the life out of this movie. It’s in such a rush to get the protagonist from point A to point B to point C, and the character’s internal journey doesn’t register because of that brevity. When Lake sees Banir it should be an explosive scene. He’s been waiting 22 years to confront this man. How does interacting with Banir make him feel? We never know, which is most frustrating when Lake makes a questionable decision we never fully understand.
Schrader’s film has obviously been cut to the bone. Lake and Cage easily could’ve maintained our attention for more than 87 minutes, especially with a more patient pace, and one that focused more on the supporting players. Yelchin has so little to do as Schultz aside from going along with Lake’s plan, even though Lake clearly isn’t all there. Does Schultz question risking his job by following Milton’s lead? Nope, he’s just happy to see some field work.
What’s most frustrating isn’t the rushed narrative, but an incredibly obnoxious score. Frederick Wiedmann’s score constantly tries to ramp up the excitement. Exchanges of information are often delivered with music more suited for set pieces. Schrader’s words are generally thrilling enough on their own, so a score this intrusive is entirely unnecessary to the point of actually destroying a few otherwise good scenes. Wiedmann’s work undermines the film, as if this character or story isn’t exciting enough.
Despite all these glaring issues, there’s a handful of moments that show signs of life and of a superior film. Cage sells Lake’s frustration and pain. There’s a few “big” line deliveries people expect from Cage nowadays, but, for the most part, it’s a quiet performance. Cage keeps one engaged; he makes Lake a character to root for. Lake is driven by a fascinating duality – he’s going after Banir for his country and personal satisfaction – and, when Cage and Schrader are allotted time to explore this idea, Dying of the Light succeeds. When the movie turns into something it was never meant to be though it falls apart.
The Upside: Nicolas Cage is in fine form; sometimes delivers on the engaging conceit; a clever death scene
The Downside: Rushes itself; the terribly obtrusive score; stilted action; 30 minutes too short
On The Side: Nicolas Winding Refn was originally going to direct Dying of the Light with Harrison Ford in the lead role.
Related Topics: Nicolas Cage