Co-directors Alex and Benjamin Brewer’s heist drama “The Trust” earns its keep from its choice of mismatched cop protagonists. The odd pairing of Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood reflects the film’s off-kilter vibe, with the pair playing two crooked Las Vegas officers who team up to rob a secret basement vault. Their dynamic is the chief thrill of the film, which, aside from a streak of dark humor that succeeds better than most, proceeds with the usual elements of retro music, nihilistic touches, and snappy dialogue that make up the modern crime thriller.
With absolutely zero honest, amiable characters in sight — this is Vegas, after all — the Brewers settle on the corrupt and lazy. Stone (Cage) wastes away in the police station impound, sorting crime scene evidence while being forced to pull items for the children of higher ranked officers. Out in the field, Waters (Wood) would rather play a keyboard inside the house of a crime scene than help chase down the suspect who bursts unexpectedly from a closet. The two have an uneasy friendship, mostly based on their shared view of incompetence on the force.
Waters displays the type of short-term ambition that might put his entire faith into a lottery ticket, but Stone is much craftier. Upon noticing that a heroin dealer got off quickly on bail with $200,000 cash, Stone enlists Waters to help him track down the source of the money. As the reliable straight man to Cage’s energetic turn, Wood utilizes his expressive eyes to stress each new, ridiculous task that Stone suggests: trailing a drug dealer on the subway, impersonating a hotel waiter for surveillance purposes, and eventually, executing a heist.
Historically, Cage has been a tricky sort of talent: when set upon a great role with good direction he’s up there with the best. But if the goal of a director is to “let Cage be Cage,” as in a number of his recent roles, the result will be a kooky sideshow in an oasis of cinematic ideas. You feel the Brewer brothers are keen observers of this problem, and so they use Cage in the way a sensible fan would: with flashes of surreal humor when needed, balanced by necessary dramatic weight, with a curious line reading or two.
“Curious” would also describe the supporting roles: namely Jerry Lewis as Stone’s father, and Sky Ferreira as an unexpected occupant of Stone and Waters’ target apartment for their break-in. Both do fine performance-wise, but the fact that they are recognizable as the Jerry Lewis and pop star Sky Ferreira point toward a significance that the film’s narrative priorities mishandle. Lewis shows up in a one-note, underwhelming exchange, quietly judging his son as Stone tries to connect. Plot-wise Ferreira is more essential, but as an emerging emotional concern — do Stone and Waters murder her to collect a bounty that might not even exist? — her few, largely silent scenes fail to do the job.
Several of Stone and Waters’ actions read as unbelievably thin and illogical, but then that appears to be the point: the film is about two dimwits, one with a dangerous sense of self-belief, who easily stumble into trouble and flail to escape. Its execution is flawed in this regard, as you get the sense that Cage and Wood’s chemistry are patching the holes in the film’s fabric, as well as selling its many nods and references to other, better works in the genre. Desolate parking lots, sun-bleached desert cityscapes, and murky interiors only hearken back to the moral voids of “Breaking Bad” or “The Counselor,” while the the soul number “Tipping Strings” by The Knights on the soundtrack point to a less optimistic riff on Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.”
The Knights number actually mirrors the Brewers’ film in many ways: pulpy, stylish, with a few tragic flourishes along the way. It bookends the film in two very different contexts, but in either one, the mood is never upbeat. “The Trust” is many other things — darkly funny, flawed, with a eminently watchable dynamic between Cage and Wood — but from frame one it reasonably entertains, while its characters have nothing but contempt for one another. [C+]