“There are two kinds of people in this world: men of action, and everyone else.”
Early in Dying of the Light, the camera zooms in on a man’s hand which then begins to tremble uncontrollably. The hand belongs to Nicolas Cage, and this shot is the first best hope we have that the film we’re watching will be worthwhile. Though Cage has a notoriously uneven track record, many of his highest highs involve him playing disturbed, afflicted, or deeply neurotic characters. Leading Man Cage, National Treasure Cage, is fine as far as he goes; but what you really want is Matchstick Men Cage, Bad Lieutenant Cage. You want the guy who has unpredictable freak-outs, manic ticks and ridiculous hair. Sometimes it’s a thin line that separates “I want to take his face…off!” from “No, not the bees,” but we’re willing to take that risk because when it works it pays off big time; and for at least a few minutes of Dying of the Light, it looks as though we’re about to be treated to the next entry in the “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” canon.
Cage plays Evan Lake, a long-time CIA operative who was once tortured in the line of duty and refused to crack under pressure. He was eventually extracted and now works behind a desk, occasionally giving fiery pep talks to new recruits about the values of the agency. Lake wants to go back to the field but there’s one little problem: he’s been diagnosed with an aggressive form of frontal lobe dementia, causing mood swings and space-outs. When his friend and colleague (a weirdly cast Anton Yelchin) presents him with evidence that the man who tortured him (Alexander Karim) may still be alive, Lake sets out to bring him to justice before his tormentor can die of his own rare blood disease.
Dying of the Light is the latest film by Paul Schrader, director of American Gigolo and Nothing Else You’ve Heard Of. I guess he made The Canyons recently, that movie with Lindsay Lohan that people totally saw. And of course he wrote such classic Scorsese films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. The drama behind the scenes of Dying of the Light is as interesting as the movie itself. Schrader, Cage, Yelchin, and producer Nicolas Winding Refn took to social media in protest that the film was taken away from Schrader and apparently finished without his input. The men wore t-shirts displaying the non-disparagement clause from their contracts, meaning that while they were contractually forbidden from saying anything negative about the movie, it was clear they were unhappy with the outcome. From the outside looking in, it’s impossible to say just how the movie would be different had Schrader retained more control.
It presents in its current form as a competent mid-budget thriller, the kind of casually R-rated fare that used to make up a more significant slice of box office pie. It doesn’t go out of its way to be violent or vulgar, though there are few bloody bursts throughout. The handheld camera work is mostly invisible, occasionally pushing in on Cage when he starts monologuing. For me the film’s highlight is an angry speech the Lake character gives to his superior at the CIA, accusing the agency of mishandling every national crisis for 50 years and having its head “so far up Obama’s ass you can’t see anything but his shit anymore.” It’s always a joy watching Cage play unhinged. When he gets going he’s utterly magnetic. It’s a shame that after these early scenes the film loses some of its fire and slacks into a less-than-riveting hunt for a man who can’t get out of his chair.
As dull as that might sound, there’s a certain poetry to a quiet standoff between two terminally ill men. That moment nearly comes as a subversive anti-climax but ultimately goes a more conventional route. The bulk of the movie’s second half drags on without adding much interest or intrigue either to our main characters or their quarry. And what is Yelchin doing in this? It’s like he’s trying hard to mimic a hard-boiled American detective but his delivery comes off a little strange.
For a film with so much political and social content, it’s not immediately obvious to me if Dying of the Light has any kind of opinion on these issues. It doesn’t seem much interested in torture, vigilantism or mortality as ideas, nor in examining failures in American policy with any more depth than a raised middle finger. The title refers to both characters’ slow descent towards death by disease, and their confrontation is the first and only time that there seems to be any kind of realization of their linked fates, any transference of empathy. The one consistent thread might be Lake’s touting of “values” while having the life literally beaten out of him – he’s squeezed out of the government and left to take things into his own (fragile, shaking) hands. One wonders if this is an element that might have come through stronger had Schrader retained his vision for the film. As a vehicle for one of the better recent Cage performances the movie is serviceable enough, but it soon digresses into an unremarkable thriller without many thrills.
The full line of the Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” from which the movie takes its title says, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Cage already starred in a movie this year called Rage, which wasn’t particularly well received. If this pattern holds we’ll see him next year in Good Night, and the critics will still be saying “Do not go.”