As bad as Paul Schrader’s worst movies are, they have integrity of personality that’s born of authentic obsession. The weirdest and most dispiriting element of Dying of the Light, which Schrader has protested amid claims that Lionsgate took the film from him, is the remarkable effacement of the filmmaker’s sensibility, with the exception of the occasional symbolic flourish that plays as inadvertent self-parody. On paper, the film sounds like vintage Schrader, as it’s a story of a disenfranchised loner, who, succumbing to a metaphorical ailment, decides to take the law into his own hands to morally ambiguous ends. But the meat of Schrader’s cinema is missing, as the long, deliberate, purposefully harsh compositions rich in alienated portent and stifled, deliberate longing have been replaced by the sort of fast cuts, incoherent chases, and irritatingly obvious “action movie” music that reliably mar most of Nicolas Cage’s other cheesy, low-rent ass-kickers.
Like many Cage action outings before it, Dying of the Light is almost indifferently subdued, particularly in regard to highlighting its star’s prototypically inscrutable vaudeville, which could be best described as a marriage of silent-movie emoting with physical gyrations that wouldn’t be out of place on WWE Raw. That’s a fatal problem too, because this film could stand to benefit from tapping Cage’s more unhinged instincts, which are intentionally funnier and more inventive than is often acknowledged.
This perfunctory sense of restraint is also characteristic of Schrader, the most humorless of all the legendary “movie brats.” This constraining self-seriousness is never more apparent than in an early monologue when Cage’s Evan Lake, a C.I.A. legend haunted by his torture and imprisonment at the hands of a terrorist now long believed to be dead, is asked to give a speech to a classroom of idealistic, worshipful new agency recruits. It’s a typical bit of exposition meant to signal Lake’s disillusionment with America’s collusive global hypocrisy (the theme, reminiscent of Rolling Thunder, that probably originally drew Schrader to the material), and a Cage fan will expect it to build into an elaborately beside-the-point showcase for the actor’s talents for expressively righteous overkill. But it’s nipped off right as Cage is getting warmed up. This scene, ludicrous on a literal-minded level, is never allowed to reach a transcendent B-movie climax.
Schrader’s personality reveals itself, then, in the film’s joylessness, which is meaningless without the director’s accompanying and occasionally poignant existentialism, and which serves to rob a potentially serviceable Cage vehicle of its lunatic grandiosity. It’s a worse-of-both-worlds scenario that yields a film that’s comprised of virtually nothing but exposition and stuffily obvious thematic hand-wringing pertaining to once-idealistic global warriors left adrift and stranded by opportunistic capitalism. And the squandering of one theoretically great punchline is unforgivable: Lake is diagnosed with a rare form of dementia that could hinder his terrorist-hunting mission (but, of course, doesn’t) and which is characterized by side effects that include weird sensory perceptions and irrational mood swings. In other words, Lake is coming down with a sickness that promises to turn him into a real Nicolas Cage character, if only someone had given him the license to let his freak flag fly.