Saturday, December 6, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: DYING OF THE LIGHT (2014)

(US/Bahamas - 2014)

Written and directed by Paul Schrader. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Alexander Karim, Irene Jacob, Ayman Hamdouchi, Claudius Peters, Adetomiwa Edun, Robert G. Slade, Serben Celea, Silas Carson, Arsha Aghdasi. (R, 94 mins)

Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage) is a legend at the CIA headquarters in Langley. He's received virtually every honor the CIA can bestow. One of the most brilliant minds in the history of the agency and a loner who's devoted his entire life to his country, Lake's been saddled with "temporary" desk duty that's now in its sixth year. He's desperate to get back in the field, but his right hand twitches, he drinks too much, and he's been prone to mood swings that are becoming more erratic by the day. He also hasn't been able to let go of a Beirut assignment from 22 years earlier where he was captured and brutally tortured by terrorist Mohammed Banir (Alexander Karim), who repeatedly beat him over the head with an oar and snipped off part his ear before an extraction team swarmed in, took out Banir and his men, and rescued Lake. Lake hasn't shaken the gnawing notion that Banir is still alive, and when he brings it up around the office, it usually provokes eye-rolls and a stern word from the CIA chief to drop it. And the news just got worse for Lake: he's been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, an aggressive brain disease similar to Alzheimer's that provokes difficulty focusing, outbursts, lack of emotional control, and wildly inappropriate overreactions. Respected around the office but stand-offish and cold, Lake's only work friend is young analyst Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin), who's been doing some investigating in his spare time and gets a hit on a medication that's being smuggled into Bucharest after being prescribed by a Kenya-based doctor (Serben Celea). It's a seldom-used med that treats a rare genetic blood disorder that killed Banir's father and that Banir is known to carry. Knowing Banir has associates in both Mombasa and Bucharest, Schultz presents his findings to Lake, who is more convinced than ever that Banir faked his death and is alive, if not well. When the CIA honchos refuse to hear him out and practically force him to retire when his efforts to conceal his condition fail, Lake has a meltdown that ends up getting him escorted out of the building. With nothing to lose and wanting to nail Banir and prove he was right all along, Lake decides to spend what little time he has left finding Banir and exacting revenge. Lake and Schultz go rogue, heading to Romania where Lake attempts to infiltrate Banir's off-the-grid hiding place by posing as the new hematologist being secretly paid to visit and treat him.

DYING OF THE LIGHT sounds like a standard-issue post-9/11 terrorism thriller, and that's pretty much what it is. But that's not what writer/director Paul Schrader had in mind. Schrader, the oft-embattled '70s auteur whose screenplays include the Martin Scorsese essentials TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and whose directorial credits feature BLUE COLLAR (1978), AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980), CAT PEOPLE (1982), and AFFLICTION (1997), had the film taken away from him during post-production, when the producers decided they didn't like the version he assembled, saying it looked nothing like the script he originally presented to them. In October, Schrader, backed by Cage, Yelchin, and co-producer Nicolas Winding Refn (DRIVE), all contractually forbidden to publicly badmouth the film, staged a silent protest on social media that went viral, where they simply wore T-shirts with the contractual clause about not disparaging the movie printed on the front. Schrader said nothing, other than he was locked out of the editing room and the released version of DYING OF THE LIGHT is not his work, while primary producer Grindstone Entertainment and distributor Lionsgate have predictably offered no comment.

Clockwise from top left: Cage, Yelchin, Schrader and Refn display their grievances
with the producers and distributor of DYING OF THE LIGHT

Everything on screen was indeed shot by Schrader, but of course, editing can make a huge difference. Film Comment's Kevin Jagernauth has seen both versions of DYING OF THE LIGHT and says the differences aren't that extensive but that the sense of terror and disorientation in Cage's character has been downplayed in the released cut. In its present form, DYING OF THE LIGHT's biggest sin is its bland, generic execution, looking and playing very much like any random Romania-shot straight-to-DVD actioner. The action is mainly confined to the last 10-15 minutes and feels crammed in, and most of the way, it's a talky drag with performances that never really click. Yelchin is completely miscast, while Cage, sporting a gray version of one of his new Christopher Lee hairpieces, has been given a free pass to Cage it up thanks to the symptoms of his character's illness. He has a few of his patented outbursts, loves to overdo the hand twitch, gets to shout "As-salamu alaykum, asshole!" and absurdly mispronounces "Benghazi" to keep himself amused. There's fleeting hints of a more serious character study with Lake, and Schrader could probably draw a straight line through his past characters like Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER, William Devane's Charles Rane in ROLLING THUNDER (1977), Willem Dafoe's John LeTour in LIGHT SLEEPER (1992), Nick Nolte's Wade Whitehouse in AFFLICTION, plus others, directly to Evan Lake. They're all men who feel lost and alienated from the world and are reinvigorated when they find a purpose--typically revenge of some sort. That sometimes comes across in some of DYING OF THE LIGHT's more introspective moments, but those are few and far between. What's here is as much of a standard B-actioner that Grindstone and the producers could assemble. It could've just as easily been directed by regular Grindstone hack Brian A. Miller (THE OUTSIDER, THE PRINCE) and starred Dominic Purcell.  Refn was attached to direct in the earliest pre-production stages in 2010, along with Harrison Ford as Lake and Channing Tatum as Schultz, but that fell apart when Ford bolted after disagreeing with the ending of Schrader's script, which does stay intact even in this compromised version.

Obviously, the behind-the-scenes discord with DYING OF THE LIGHT is more interesting than anything that's in the movie. Whatever its intentions, it's yet another in a long line of Redbox-ready Nic Cage trifles that seem to come along every couple of months, allowing him to chew the scenery and add to the endless YouTube "Nic Cage Freaks Out!!!" clips.  He's almost a pet doing tricks at this point. Perhaps we'll never know what really went down, but by now, this kind of thing is hardly shocking when it comes to Schrader. Back in 2003, he found himself in a very similar situation when Morgan Creek execs took his EXORCIST prequel away from him when they didn't appreciate the cerebral, spiritual film he made that featured very little in the way of levitation, green vomit, and mothers sucking cocks in Hell. Renny Harlin was hired to reshoot some scenes and beef up the crowd-pleasing horror factor, but his additions became so extensive that Schrader's version was scrapped entirely and completely refilmed by Harlan as the awful EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004) with the same lead actor (the patient and presumably well-compensated Stellan Skarsgard). The story caused such a stir with Hollywood insiders and fans that Schrader's shelved version, retitled DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, was given a limited release in 2005. It's not always successful, but it's very character-driven and intelligently-written, and it's certainly better than Harlan's remake.

Schrader with his stars during a break in filming
The 68-year-old Schrader has made great films over his long career, but he never seemed to get over the demise of 1970s maverick auteurism in the wake of Michael Cimino's United Artists-bankrupting HEAVEN'S GATE (1980).  Like Terry Gilliam, he appears to enjoy putting himself in situations where he's David taking on the Goliath-like "system." I'm all for giving a filmmaker of Schrader's stature as much wiggle room as he wants. He's earned it, but he's also been in the business long enough to know that a theory-filled religious drama with EXORCIST in the title wasn't going to fly with anyone and that the producers would eventually get their way (was he completely unaware of William Peter Blatty's battles with the same Morgan Creek guys on 1990's THE EXORCIST III?). But even when he works outside the studio system and helms the partially crowd-funded THE CANYONS (2013), the result is a self-indulgent disaster. Did Schrader not see this coming when he got in bed with a bunch of B action producers like Grindstone and the Bahamas-based Tin Res Entertainment and tried to make a serious, meaningful film?  Did he think Refn would have enough clout to get him his way? Do any of these guys have an understanding of the business in which they work?  Schrader is living in a past where all filmmakers have final cut and it's all about art. It would be great if it could be that way, and it was until Cimino ruined it for everyone, but has Schrader heard of GANGS OF NEW YORK, the film that proved even Martin Scorsese doesn't get final cut and has to answer to his backers? Schrader answering to no one gave us THE CANYONS. I got the impression from that film that Schrader was bitter and angry about a lot of things, and maybe he's justified. Like many of his protagonists, Schrader has been left on the fringes and removed from the process after demonstrating an inability to adapt to a changing world. When he made THE CANYONS, he said he was on the cutting edge of a revolution with crowd-funding. Now, here he is, a year later, fighting the same old battles and expecting a different outcome. Maybe Schrader's director's cut of DYING IN THE LIGHT is his masterpiece. I doubt it, but I'd love to see this once-relevant and frequently brilliant filmmaker knock one out of the park again. Schrader deserves better, but at the same time, you have to wonder if he, like Terry Gilliam, brings a lot of this on himself.

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