Title: Dying Of The Light
Director: Paul Schrader
Major Players: Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin
Out Of Five: 2
Remember Paul Schrader? The screenwriter who burst onto the screen with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull? He moved into directing, with American Gigolo and Mishima but, more recently, the only way seems to have been down, with his films only showing echoes of his earlier promise.
And his latest offering, Dying Of The Light, doesn’t show any signs of bucking the trend. In fact, the movie’s back story is far more interesting than the film itself because, even though it has Schrader’s name prominently attached to it, what we’re seeing on the screen is not his final cut. True, he wrote and directed it but, the story goes that once filming had been completed, it was whisked out of his hands by the studio, who took over the editing and release. Schrader, who’s been vocal in the past about studio interference in his movies, hasn’t said anything publicly because he, his leading actors (Nicolas Cage and Anton Yelchin) and executive producer, Nicolas Winding Refn, are all bound by a non-disparagement clause in their contracts. Not that it stopped them being photographed wearing “non-disparagement T-shirts”.
While Schrader and co aren’t allowed to say anything negative about the film, the same doesn’t apply to film critics, Yours Truly included.
CIA field agent Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage) has been confined to a desk job that he hates since a traumatic experience some years ago. What’s kept him going is the thought of catching up with the man that tortured him, even though the official version is that he died some years ago. On the day he hears his nemesis may well be alive after all, he’s also diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of dementia, which means compulsory retirement. Or so the CIA thinks. Because, with the help of a younger fellow agent, Lake goes rogue to track down his old enemy.
I’m almost at a loss as to where to start with this one. The film has a certain curiosity value, because chances are we’ll probably never know what Schrader’s version would have looked like. Even though his more recent movies haven’t been his best by a long shot, it’s difficult to say if it would have been any better. But it certainly couldn’t have been any worse.
What appears to have been intended as a look at post 9-11 paranoia and unquestioning patriotism has descended into a piece of gung-ho desk thumping, full of black and white attitudes and obvious clichés: Lake’s enemy being a Muslim and also has a terminal illness to contend with. To make matters even worse, its use of dementia as a plot mechanism – an additional and, this time, personal challenge for the main character to fight against – it’s tasteless to say the least.
Shrill and over the top, both in terms of actual volume and tone, Dying Of The Light is a masterclass in over acting from start to finish, with Nicolas Cage leading the charge. As you would expect. Last summer, he revealed he could still act in David Gordon Green’s Joe and there was a momentary glimmer of hope that he would take his career down the same route as Matthew McConaughey. No such luck! It’s situation absolutely normal again. He’s charging around like a B-movie Liam Neeson and he’s given some deadly dialogue to mangle as well. He declares at one point that he’s “gonna do something worth remembering.” OK, we all get the significance of the memory reference but, if that’s the intention, then both character and actor are going to have to try harder. Because the film isn’t even memorably bad.
I’ll spare you the apparent chronic incompetency of the CIA agents, the irony of the enemy’s own illness and all the other clichés squeezed into the film’s 90 minutes. When Cage tells his boss that he believes his enemy is still alive, the senior man suggests it would make sense to just let him die. And, as the film goes on, you increasingly feel he has a point. It would have saved us all from an hour and a half of over acting and dull, clunking so-called action. It would have saved Paul Schrader and co from a lot of angst as well.
Dying Of The Light in on release in the UK and on VOD.