Dying of the Light
Directed by “Paul Schrader”
Opens December 5
Take heed: this is a hellacious Lionsgate cut of a screenplay originally written and shot by Paul Schrader, who was reportedly muscled out in the editing process. (Dying Of The Light was originally slated to star Harrison Ford and Channing Tatum, with Nicolas Winding Refn directing—a pitch utterly alien to the material on display here.) It stars Nicolas Cage as Evan Lake, an alcoholic CIA spook on the lonely hunt for Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim), a jihadist who tortured him in Lebanon in the 1990s. Opening Schrader’s screenplay, the episode is capped when a team of SEALs intervene to save Lake and somehow managing to not kill Banir, the first of many coverups which exude probable mystery only to turn out to be, indeed, plot holes. (Lake fails to impress Banir’s importance on his gladhanding, careerist superiors, and the movie offers zero evidence they’re wrong.) He takes matters into his own hands shortly after being diagnosed with a migraine-inducing frontal dementia, tracing Banir from Virginia to Romania and finally Kenya.
In his vision of the ongoing secret wars hypocritically shuttered from the public eye, Schrader finds heft in artful wide compositions and claustrophobic blocking. When Lake visits the Director’s office, the blinds are lowered, simultaneously a metaphor for his tenuous grasp on reality and a shoutout to the halcyon days of noir, and indeed Cage’s unhinged characterization makes a tiny bit more sense as a War On Terror callback to the drunken, Sisyphean private dicks of yesteryear. His bouts of amnesia impede the quest fitfully, sabotaging every suspenseful turn on the path to Banir’s hideout—it’s like William Bendix’s shellshock in the 1946 The Blue Dahlia, written by Raymond Chandler. There’s no reason a simmering airport-novel-grade thriller couldn’t be shorn from the footage included here, but this edit—credited to Tim Silano, although it’s unlikely, given that he resuscitated Schrader’s similarly rejected cut of an Exorcist prequel—looks and feels like a freezing cold mess. It attempts to turn dead expository passages into pulse-pounding action montages, aborts scenes at what feels like halfway and bludgeons the viewer with a desolate TV-movie score.
The aforementioned scene with the Director becomes Lake’s last stand, gnashing his teeth at America’s most powerful spy: “Who’s got their hand in your pocket now? […] You’ve got your head so far up Obama’s ass you can’t see anything except his shit anymore! Shame on you!” (It’s an instant addition to the Cage athenaeum of showstopping, spit-flecking diatribes.) There are repeated hints of Lake’s warping ideology—he obsesses over Banir because he is a “true believer”—that wink in the direction of a bigger subtextual idea, but the cheapness of scenography and the sludgy, artless editing don’t feel much like Schrader (or anybody worth paying attention to). Recall Light Sleeper, a stolid Schrader potboiler with only one substantial—but unforgettable—action scene. Envisioning a director’s cut of Dying of the Light, the optimistic cineaste can only assume they’re here seeing the worst takes of the worst lines of an otherwise intelligent screenplay, which recedes into the backdrop as the film lurches forward and wearily peters out.