Film Review – Sympathy for the Devil
Sympathy for the Devil
If there is one thing Nicolas Cage cannot be accused of, it’s taking a role for granted. Whether it’s a big budget blockbuster or a straight to video indie, Cage cannot operate at any level other than 200%. That’s what makes him so compelling – he takes unconventional roles and delivers them with oddball, quirky performances. He treats every part like it’s his last, regardless of the material. This approach has garnered several good results in recent years, from Joe (2013), Mandy (2018), Color Out of Space (2019), and Pig (2021). However, because of his willingness to say yes to just about everything, his work has also included many forgettable films. Cage’s career as of late is a hodgepodge that spans the entire spectrum: good, bad, and in between. Seeing a modern day Nicolas Cage film is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.
Luckily, Sympathy for the Devil (2023) is one of the good ones. Written by Luke Paradise and directed by Yuval Adler, this is a stripped-down, neo-noir two hander – in which Cage takes his unique skill set and goes toe to toe with Joel Kinnaman’s family man. The premise is fairly simple: a man named David (Kinnaman) arrives at a hospital to see his wife who is currently in labor. But before David can step out of his car, a stranger known only as The Passenger (Cage) enters the back seat. Sporting flaming red hair, a thick goatee, and a polyester jacket, The Passenger looks like a magician from the ‘90s. Things turn deadly serious when The Passenger pulls a gun out, points it at David, and instructs him to drive away from the hospital. “My wife is having a baby, it’s a family emergency,” David explains, to which The Passenger responds, “I’m your family emergency now.”
So off they go into the Las Vegas night, with David having no clue why The Passenger has taken him hostage. This set up will call to mind several crime thrillers, notably Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004). But Sympathy for the Devil has a life of its own, and that is mainly due to Cage’s unhinged, unpredictable work. Cage conjures The Passenger as a sneering loose cannon, going to extreme measures to show David he means business. But what makes the character so fascinating – and thus the reason for the film’s title – is that all of Cage’s mannerisms come from a place of tragedy. As The Passenger slowly reveals his secret plans for David, we come to realize why he is so erratic. This is a world where bad things happen to bad men, with The Passenger acting as an Angel of Death. Like all of Cage’s best performances, there is a method to the madness. He once again proves his ability to tie his character’s eccentricities with an undercurrent of empathy.
Cage does the heavy lifting, even if it’s done strictly through his physicality. Kinnaman has the unfortunate assignment of playing the even keeled (and thus less interesting) counter to The Passenger. David is a blank slate for most of the runtime, acting oblivious to why The Passenger chose him. Of course, the dynamic between the two will change the further along things go, but by the time the full picture is revealed, it’s too late. Keen observers will likely guess the big surprises – the writing does little to distract us from what’s coming. In fact, the writing might be the weakest part of the film. The conversations involve David continuously asking why he was kidnapped and The Passenger constantly trying to mess with his head. I’m not sure if the dialogue was written or improvised, but a lot of it comes off awkwardly. In one sequence, The Passenger describes having a sinus issue as a child, which caused nightmares of a “Mr. Mucus” character climbing into his nose and sprinkling boogers everywhere. Later, when they stop by a late night diner, The Passenger causes a scene over the type of cheese he can have with his meal. Whether these examples were in the screenplay or made up on the spot doesn’t matter, they don’t work. They make The Passenger seem more like a dweeb than a menacing villain.
Luckily, Yuval Adler’s direction adds strong stylistic touches. He turns Vegas and the surrounding desert into a ghostly underworld. It’s as though The Passenger is leading David on the river Styx, headed toward certain doom. Adler builds the tension in both subtle and overt ways. When the two stop by a gas station to fill up, David tries his best to silently call for help from other drivers. This moment of quiet but palpable suspense is far different compared to a later scene taking place in a parking lot, where burning cars and the surrounding smoke creates the illusion of hell on Earth. And all the while, we hear David’s cell phone ringing – a constant reminder of the family he was forced to abandon.
The thing I’ve always loved about noir is the sense of desperation. Whether it is desperation for love, money, revenge, or status, noir creates a stage where characters are pushed to their very limits, where the line between right and wrong become blurred. Noir is all about compromised characters who have been dealt a bad hand and try to force things their way, typically to disastrous results. Sympathy for the Devil fits that description. It would be easy to say that David is the good guy, The Passenger is the bad guy, and that their story is one of survival against evil forces. But that is not the case. The narrative paints these characters (especially The Passenger) in shades of gray, where the choices they make come from a place of extreme distress. Can one find peace through violence? Can life be restored from the ashes of death? Those seem to be the film’s most pressing questions.
Ultimately, the main draw is – without a doubt – Nicolas Cage’s edgy, hilariously enigmatic performance. There just isn’t an actor out there who can gesture, scream, or exaggerate the way he can. He takes whatever project is handed to him and turns it into a platform for his own performance art. It’s like he is experimenting on the fly, throwing everything up against the wall to see what sticks. The fact that he is doing all of this within the confines of a taut thriller is just the cherry on top.