Car-Bound Thriller Sympathy For The Devil Is a Dull Trip

Movies Reviews Nicolas Cage
Car-Bound Thriller Sympathy For The Devil Is a Dull Trip

One may assume that a surefire way for a film to ratchet up the tension is to confine the proceedings to a single location. Amidst the claustrophobia of an enclosed space, we watch as small grievances bloom into vendettas and people are pulled towards confrontation with dramatic inevitability. Perhaps an ornamental gun is shown, alluding to a future act of violence, or maybe we witnessed hints of suppressed animosity that could burst forth at the worst time. Either way, these kinds of lean narratives tend to slowly raise the temperature until their boiling contents spill over. 

By contrast, Sympathy for the Devil, a car-bound thriller from director Yuval Adler, fails to arrive at this kind of explosive denouement, making it less a high-octane joyride and more a run-of-the-mill traffic violation. While most of the story takes place in a constrained setting and it wastes no time in introducing us to the dangers of being trapped in a metal box with a delirious Nicolas Cage performance, Sympathy for the Devil’s inability to paint its characters in anything but the broadest strokes makes it difficult to see past the artifice of it all, dulling its attempts at dangling these people’s fates over the precipice.

David Chamberlain (Joel Kinnaman) is on his way to visit his pregnant wife in the hospital, who is expected to give birth any minute. He is wearing a checkered flannel and a pair of glasses that make him look like the platonic ideal of an American everyman. As he heads to his destination, he drops his son off and justifiably frets over the condition of his wife. On cue, she calls to remind him of her first pregnancy, where the child didn’t survive due to complications. David nervously works through the contents of a pink hospital baby bag as he makes his way through the traffic of a Las Vegas night, and surprisingly, he arrives at his destination with time to spare. But while waiting for a parking spot, a strange man, who has been watching from the entrance of the emergency room, leaps into his car. Clad in a garish red blazer and equally affronting maroon hair dye, this figure (Nicolas Cage) pulls out a revolver and tells the stressed-out father to start driving. For the remainder of the movie, David attempts to escape the clutches of this Man in Red, as a potential past link between the two begins to emerge.

Although the decision to almost immediately put the protagonist in peril seems like it would set the stage for a white-knuckled standoff. Instead, it mostly reveals the clever construction of other, more successful one-room thrillers. Many of the best pictures in this style weaponize the threat of something going wrong to build anxiety, so that when things finally break bad after an agonizing buildup, this lands with the appropriate sense of crashing anticipation. Sympathy for the Devil begins at a fever pitch, and its attempts to raise the temperature further fall flat. We can feel the tension dissipate as the kidnapping prolongs, and even as this Man in Red (referred to in the credits as “The Passenger”) begins to hurt people, these hastily introduced characters come across as props meant to jolt our dull protagonist instead of individuals we become invested in. Less can often be more, as Locke, another movie that takes us on an extended drive, can attest. While that film lacked a devilish backseat driver waving around a firearm or any other sense of imminent physical danger, it managed to draw us into the collapsing personal life of its main character because it communicated the intricacies of his relationships and obligations, something that Sympathy for the Devil fails to do until its conclusion.

By contrast, our introduction to David Chamberlain is outright perfunctory. Although it lays out the elements that are supposed to endear us to his circumstances (a wife in labor with previous medical issues), it doesn’t show us anything about this relationship besides platitudes. His son is relegated to a single scene, and his significant other is nothing more than a disembodied voice over the phone. David doesn’t stand out either; between his scruffy facial hair and perpetually dazed expression, he’s a textbook “regular guy in a bad situation” whose every action appears pulled from a script. The Passenger even pokes fun at the ready-made clichés that his prisoner embodies, but this lampshading can’t change the fact we’re not given much else to latch onto besides banal details. The ending reveals that this was largely by design: A last-second turn recontextualizes David’s behavior but comes short of justifying the previous 75 minutes in the rear-view mirror. While Kinnaman is given little to work with throughout, we do get some flashes of something more during these closing scenes, as pain and suppressed emotions replace this mask of normalcy.

But of course, the main reason many will check this one out is because of the big name attached: Nicolas Cage, known for performances that can be as understated as the shockwave of a thermonuclear blast. In recent years, he’s also given us a string of nuanced renditions in Pig, Mandy and Color out of Space, where he bounced between quiet contemplation and crackling rage with sublime whiplash. In this case, that potential gamut of emotion is limited to a single shrill note. Aside from a particularly strange monologue concerning “the mucus man,” The Passenger doesn’t rate as a disquieting antagonist. There is some campy charm to the character, particularly when it comes to what I can best identify as an attempt at a Boston accent, but Luke Paradise’s script feels like it’s chasing Cage-tinged absurdity rather than letting it naturally wash over us in a wave of delirium. And even as the previously mentioned last-act twist makes David more interesting in retrospect, it’s much harder to buy into what it informs us about his cartoonish foe.

While there are many allusions throughout Sympathy for the Devil towards this final reveal, from hints in the very first conversation, to the ostentatious details of The Passenger’s wardrobe, none of these nods make up for the long stretches of road spent with its dull protagonist. Similarly, although the close-cropped shots of this sedan-turned-prison-cell and the ominous thuds of Ishai Adar’s simmering score instill some degree of foreboding, these competent audio-visual elements don’t eclipse the uninspiring delivery and structure of the narrative. By leaving little room to elevate its initial stakes and putting too much weight on its finale to redeem its blasé characters, Sympathy for the Devil makes for an unremarkable drive.

Director:Yuval Adler
Writer: Luke Paradise
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joel Kinnaman
Release Date: July 28, 2023

Elijah Gonzalez is a former games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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