“There’s two kinds of people in this world: men of action, and everyone else,” Nicolas Cage says with a smirk near the start of Paul Schrader’s latest film, Dying of the Light. Dying has plenty of action, Schrader-style violence and great Cage moments, but the movie is an oddity in its own right. Taken from its director during post-production, the film plays against itself with no cohesive vision left to shine through, only glimmers here and there of Schrader’s idiosyncratic wiles. When you watch Dying of the Light, you’re also watching the possibilities of what might have been.
Cage plays Evan Lake, a decorated CIA agent currently pushing papers and inspiring—or terrifying, depending on how you take your Cage—recruits into the service. His glory days of fieldwork are far behind him; the beginning of the film shows Lake survive a scarring terrorist interrogation by notorious leader Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim). Decades later, Lake is barely coming to terms with his memory loss when a young operative, Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin), informs him that the terrorist responsible for Lake’s failed mission and torture may still be alive and organizing to strike again. It’s up to the unlikely pair to stop the murderous Banir before it’s too late.
Dependable as ever, Cage overacts well above every other actor on set. The movie explains this as an offshoot of his PTSD and aging. Lake forgets details and fights against the (you guessed it) “dying of the light,” be that of his dementia or his archnemesis. The character is tailor-made for Cage’s brand of cool dissociation and emotional outbursts. He’s aged to look too over-the-hill to join The Expendables, but there are impossible, B-movie sequences that break him from an inactive lull.
Though it’s clearly Cage’s show, his costar Yelchin provides a pleasant counterbalance in the Lake and Schultz dynamic. He’s still just an upstart, with no extra tech know-how or secret James Bond persona waiting to let loose. Instead, Schultz is the more compassionate of the two, cleaning up PR disasters left by Lake’s rages and tolerating his absentminded father figure’s angry insistence that he really does know the location of their hotel. It’s a new- and old-school dichotomy, with preference given to the way business used to be done. Sadly, not as much thought seems to have been spent on Karim’s role as Banir, who’s practically an Osama bin Laden stand-in, and the less said about Irène Jacob’s near-inconsequential part as the sole supporting actress, the better.
Something’s amiss in the folds of punchy dialogue and a spy-filled plot. Yelchin looks bleached into the background, his dark wig doing no favors, the screen whitened for a sanitized aesthetic. In stark contrast, the scenes in Mombasa exist primarily in curtain-covered smoky rooms, where it’s cartoonishly obvious that audiences are now watching the bad guys. Certain scenes start too early, what makes for an awkward game of “Where’s Waldo?” to find where our attention should be directed. Disembodied, clunky lines linger over other moments, and the climax fumbles from an odd sequence order. Who knows if there was more complexity to the story before, but in its current state, Dying of the Light is more muddled than electrifying.
Like Schrader’s The Canyons before it, there’s something to be said for the movie’s assorted players. This time, it’s the writer-director who’s fighting against the dying of the light—that is, the artistic heights of his Taxi Driver and Raging Bull era. The memory is fading, and the bad guy—the studio—is poised to get away with it. Along with Cage and Yelchin, executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn threw his support behind the director when the studio pried the project from Schrader. Disowned by its cast and crew and hacked into a bland blend, the thriller feels drained of blood. There’s still fighting to be done for artists, but this battle has been lost.
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader?
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Alexander Karim
Release Date: Dec. 5, 2014
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Brooklyn. You can usually find her outside of a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter.