Review: Dying of the Light
PLOT: A veteran CIA agent (Nicolas Cage) discovers that he’s suffering from an advanced case of dementia. With only a short amount of time left before his eventual decline, he becomes obsessed with tracking down the terrorist mastermind who once narrowly escaped his grasp.
REVIEW: Much has been written about how DYING OF THE LIGHT was taken away from writer/director Paul Schrader in post-production, with the final cut seemingly disowned by most of the creative principals associated with the film. This includes Schrader, Cage, co-star Anton Yelchin, and exec-producer Nicolas Refn (who was once attached to direct it). Having seen the finished product, it’s clear that they have a point.
DYING OF THE LIGHT is a frustrating film. There are solid elements in it that should have added up to a good film, but the ninety-minute cut that’s coming out this week is anything but. At its best it feels like a mediocre episode of HOMELAND, and at its worst it’s barely comprehensible. It looks like the distributor tried to take a character driven movie and desperately reshape it into a thriller, but no amount of frenetic editing and aggressive music can accomplish this if it wasn’t shot to be that kind of film. At time, watching this is like watching one of those YouTube joke edits where a horror movie like THE SHINING is passed off as a comedy. It’s almost painful to watch at times.
Basically, the movie makes no sense. The dementia aspect, which should have been the focus, is often ignored, as if it was judiciously removed as much as possible. As a result, Cage’s performance has been deeply compromised, with many scenes coming-off like he’s chewing scenery or acting “over-the-top” (which he’s certainly been guilty of before) but if the context had been there it might have been a really good performance. Anton Yelchin fares even worse, with him inexplicably tagging along with Cage on his mission, and getting very little in the way of motivation. It's tough to believe that when Refn was going to direct this part was earmarked for Channing Tatum. Again, the only explanation can be that much of it was left on the cutting room floor. The same goes for Irene Jacob, with her at one point sharing a passionate kiss with Cage, suggesting a prior relationship, but then being totally sidelined.
To be fair, it’s entirely possible that Schrader’s film wouldn’t have been any better than this quickie cut. Some things probably couldn’t have been fixed, like Yelchin seeming way too young and fresh-faced to be playing a CIA agent or the phony Romanian accent Cage adopts in the climax as a disguise. That said, it’s hard to believe it could have been any worse. There are bits and pieces that work, like Cage’s deranged, PATTON-esque opening speech to a new batch of CIA recruits, and a gritty, gory finale, which – also – seems to have been compromised by the studio. Cage also looks cool in the part, with him being made up to look about ten years older and wearing a grisly ear prosthetic as a result of having been brutally tortured by the baddie. One thing that certainly would have been better would have been the musical score, which sounds like something off the latest DTV Steven Seagal actioner, not a classy thriller directed by an Oscar winner.
It’s truly bizarre that DYING OF THE LIGHT was taken out of Schrader’s hands, as given the low-key nature of the release, it doesn’t feel like a slower, more character-driven film would have made any kind of commercial difference. At least if Schrader’s cut was left intact it might have gotten some critical attention. Hopefully, one day, Schrader will be able to put the film out in the way it was intended. Until then, this is entirely disposable.