“The Dying Of The Light” rides into theaters on a minor wave of controversy. Claiming he was locked out of the editing process after submitting a cut that didn’t satisfy producers, director Paul Schrader, cast members Nicolas Cage and Anton Yelchin, and executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn staged a silent protest against the film (their contracts did not allow them to openly disparage the production). Regardless of how compromised the final product may be, Schrader’s name remains on the movie, and unless there truly is a drastically different version of this material, watching “The Dying Of The Light,” it’s easy to see why the film’s backers might have been concerned.
On paper, the premise is original and intriguing. The story follows veteran, decorated CIA agent Evan Lake (Cage) who receives intel that Muhammad Banir (Alexader Karim), a former nemesis and terrorist, long believed to be dead, may actually still be alive. The former field agent, who has been grudgingly stuck behind a desk for six years, sees this information as a ticket to finally put away the man who tortured him, and get back into action. However, time is running out in more ways than one. Banir is suffering from a rare blood disease that might kill him before he faces justice, while Lake has been showing signs of dementia. And try as he might to keep the tremors and fading memory from his bosses, Lake is found out and forced into retirement. Even worse, the CIA doesn’t seem all that compelled to go after Banir, or convinced that he’s even still alive. So, along with eager and supportive younger agent Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin), Lake heads overseas for the proverbial “one last job,” to find Banir and take him out, before his disease consumes his brain.
Potentially thematically rich, with a procedural element that has a texture that could lend itself to something distinctive, what’s most surprising and disappointing about “The Dying Of The Light” is how unimaginatively it treats the material. Almost from the start, the movie backgrounds its most interesting elements and stays focused on the rote investigation into the whereabouts of Banir as Lake and Schultz track him down. Endless scenes of exposition over explain the unnecessary details of what’s required to find the terrorist, and it’s made more banal as it’s never much more complicated than your average network TV thriller. But even familiar genre movies can be elevated with top tier execution (see for example David Fincher‘s pulpy, silly, and ridiculously entertaining “Gone Girl“) but “The Dying Of The Light” is hobbled at almost every stage of production.
While the blandly, digitally shot “The Dying Of The Light” can’t overcome its clear budget limitations, there are bigger issues that distract from the cheap feeling of the movie. If Schrader was trying to make a more thoughtful effort than the one that is being delivered, one has to wonder about the plethora of clunky dialogue and laughable tough talk (“There are two kinds of people in this world, men of action, and everyone else”; “You think you can hide, nobody can hide from the reaper”; “As-Salaam-Alaikum, asshole”). And yet, the movie does indulge in standard action movie tropes, even if Schrader seems uninterested in them. The two action sequences, such as they are, seem shot by a director with little regard for how they are staged or play out; indeed, for all his auteur status, they frankly could’ve been lensed by anyone. That said, there is a curious indulgence in gory closeups that seem wildly incongruous with the rest of the mostly dramatic picture. And couple this with half-hearted symbolism (including one scene with Lake standing in front of a framed American flag with a hole scorched in the middle), “The Dying Of The Light” is a half-baked hodge-podge of styles and ideas that never come close to forming a cohesive whole.
To be fair, some or even all of the problems of “The Dying Of The Light” could come down to the film’s post-production woes. Producer Todd Williams has previously stated, “Paul’s cut of the movie deviated substantially from his own script. It was a completely different movie from the movie that was greenlit, the movie that was discussed and the movie that was shot.” So perhaps there is a wildly different iteration out there (IMDB lists a director’s cut running nearly three hours long, though that is hardly official). But even if Schrader was able to put together the movie he wanted, with a different score and arrangement of scenes, it wouldn’t paint over many of the aforementioned issues that still fall under his responsibility. Nor would it change the film’s ropey acting, with Cage alternating from restrained to his usual gif-able, meme-ready antics from scene to scene, and gracelessly acknowledging Lake’s dementia with histrionics and tics when the script requires it, rather than enveloping it as an ongoing undercurrent to his character. And across the board, the performances are flat, certainly a situation not helped by a limp screenplay, and all the more dispiriting because everyone involved (including a thoroughly wasted Irene Jacob) is capable of so much more, and don’t find their talent challenged here by any degree.
“…in some ways that old three-act structure is getting a little risky and creaky as well. You can really feel it when you’re watching movies: ‘Oh, here we go. Now this is going to happen, now that’s going to happen.’ Whereas when you start using variable lengths — whether it be 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or 40 minutes — you’re thrown into a different kind of storytelling and you don’t have the same predictable arcs,” Schrader recently told Slate. “The climax can be in the second act.” And the filmmaker is totally right, but where is that director in “The Dying Of The Light”? Where is the director who is ready to shake off standard moviemaking tropes? It’s certainly not the Schrader on display in this cut of the movie, but maybe he wasn’t the right guy to make the film in the first place.
Executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn was originally lined up to direct the film a few years ago with Harrison Ford in the lead role (and Channing Tatum in support) before the actor reportedly balked at the film’s ending (which appears to remain intact here) and ultimately walked from the project. But Refn’s attraction to “The Dying To The Light” is obvious and perfect for his sensibilities. Touching upon vengeance and the legacy of violence, these are themes the director addressed in his underrated “Only God Forgives,” and the moody, minimal approach of that film would’ve fit perfectly here. And in fact, it’s the missing ingredient to making this material work. There is a pronounced lack of contemplation to “The Dying Of The Light,” a thoughtfulness to the very underlying concerns of the film. And it’s ultimately what does in the film, what turns it from a portrait of a man fading from his own life and that of a servant to his country, who is burning with a desire to even out a personal grudge, to an inelegant, extremely below average thriller.
Due to shoot a web series next spring, perhaps it’s the creative shakeup Schrader needs, because if anything, “The Dying Of The Light” seems to confirm that he’s a director no longer inspired by traditional movie structures, which likely explains the battles that took place after lensing was finished. But as it stands, “The Dying Of The Light” is forgettable, anonymous and at times almost amateur, and the product of a director searching for a new method of storytelling. [F]