There are few actors whose name recognition is tarnish-free whether appearing in a prestige picture or low-budget romp. In fact, among those few, Nicolas Cage is one where when his name is attached, audiences are aware that, whether good, bad, or indifferent, he is going to go all-in on his performance, never sleeping through a role which would be otherwise viewed as beneath an Oscar-winner. Especially in recent years, his on-screen work has been so free of pressure that it’s allowed him to get super playful in a slight role (Willy’s Wonderland), be absolutely devastating in a phantasmagorical tale (Mandy), or just straight-up lampooning himself in an action-comedy (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent). Now, in director Yuval Adler’s (The Secrets We Keep) new project, the thriller Sympathy for the Devil, Cage brings that same unflappable energy and commitment, going head-to-head with Joel Kinnaman (The Suicide Squad) for nearly 90 straight minutes. Though the film’s attempts at tension don’t pay off as one may hope, Cage and Kinnaman are a compelling enough on-screen duo to make the watch worth it.
It’s late at night and a driver (Kinnaman) has very little else on his mind other than making sure that his son is in safe hands with his mother-in-law and getting to the hospital so that his wife has the support she needs during labor. Except right as he’s gotten to the hospital parking garage, a strange man (Cage) climbs into his backseat, pulls a gun, and demands they leave. So begins a game between the two wherein the driver holds none of the cards, none of the advantage, and has everything to lose, which would give him an edge except his passenger appears prepared for everything and has been in wait a long time for this ride.
The premise of Sympathy is one that’s played on the silver screen in a variety of ways over the years — mistaken identity films; wrong place, wrong time films; or just straight-up vengeance films. The script by first-time feature writer Luke Paradise is a bit of a mish-mash of the aforementioned three, the intention being to keep the audience as off their axis as the driver. Who is the strange man dressed in black and red which matches his hair and beard? Who is this person who opens their verbal sparring with a magic trick? With Cage playing the passenger, are we to believe that this person is totally off their rocker, or, with Kinnaman playing the driver, are we to believe that this person is solely concerned with the active delivery of his wife? As the title implies, to whom does our sympathy lie? The weakness in the script, however, is that by playing on the variations that convene these two, there are a far more limited number of ways for the narrative to conclude. While this review won’t get into the specifics, nevertheless, the end result is far less interesting than the path to get you there.
Thankfully, the strengths of the film, at least, make the time spent worth the effort. The performances by Kinnaman and Cage are a great deal of fun to observe considering the way each play their respective parts and the ways they play into the dichotomy of the characters. Kinnaman is 6’ 2” and Cage is 6’0”, yet the staging and physicality of Kinnaman makes the driver seems smaller than the passenger. Cage brings a much larger energy. However, despite filling the tight frame, the passenger still appears smaller in comparison to the driver. This results in the performance from Cage, which sometimes feels like three aggravated weasels fighting out of a cloth sack (said in the most complimentary way possible), making the passenger appear far more dangerous than he would be should he and the driver go head-to-head. Complimenting this, Kinnaman maintains a hunch most of the film, as though he’s trying to make himself smaller than he is. Wisely, this doesn’t start when Cage enters the story, but is a performance aspect Kinnaman utilizes during the opening conversation between the driver and his son, maintaining it all the way through to the end. The only time his size may be seen in full view is limited, with other objects blocking the audience from taking in Kinnaman completely, thereby obfuscating the reality of the actor’s similarity in stature. Both actors do a fantastic job in conveying the passenger’s indifference to attracting a certain kind of attention, whereas the driver appears constantly on edge. Could this be a side-effect of his wife going into labor alone at the hospital, that he’s being taken hostage for an unknown reason, or that he’s not who he says he is and is terrified of being caught? Any of these reasons are applicable to the situation, which is why the physical performances matter so much in captivating the audience and keeping them on edge.
There are some stand-out lines of dialogue, a clever declaration by the passenger expressed in frustration over denials made with no evidence delivered in pure Cage Rage, and the look of the film gives off a sense of other-worldliness. “The Witching Hour” is briefly discussed in one scene and it perfectly describes the vibe of the film wherein truth and falsehoods, reality and fabrications, life and death, all co-exist at once, where anything feels possible, and the rules of engagement are clear amid the madness. Unfortunately, with the bulk of the film being so clearly aimed toward a specific conclusion, there’s little tension in any of dramatic action, only enjoyment of the performance and waiting for the real shoe to drop. At least Kinnaman and Cage make for solid scene partners, each entertaining the audience to the end.
World premiere during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
In theaters July 28th, 2023.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.