In the pantheon of directors clashing with studios over final cut — Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “Heaven’s Gate” come to mind — Paul Schrader’s “Dying of the Light” isn’t likely to hold a major spot in the history books. But there’s just enough going on with this formulaic espionage tale to suggest that whatever original ideas the writer-director had would have been superior to the underwhelming B-movie distributor Lionsgate eventually put together.
Schrader’s script, initially set to be directed by Nicolas Winding Refn pre-“Drive” and star Harrison Ford, follows aging CIA agent Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage) suffering from a brain disease and forced to retire. Haunted by memories of the elusive Middle Eastern terrorist named Banir (Alexander Karim), who tortured Evan decades earlier before eluding capture, the agent goes rogue and tracks the villain down for a final confrontation. Aided by a younger colleague (Anton Yelchin), Evan tracks his nemesis in Bucharest and eventually makes his way to a bloody showdown.
There’s much to admire about the grim espionage plot, which combines the labyrinthine narrative of a John Le Carré novel with the mold of a hard-boiled investigative thriller. Cage, whose erratic performances have yielded a rocky trajectory of late, lands one of his most distinctive roles in years — and certainly his grimiest since “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” — as the grey-haired, wizened operative driven by a mixture of personal convictions and rage.
Schrader’s screenplay provides the actor with a handful of juicy monologues that both underscore the Evan’s fierce convictions and give them an allegorical edge. One scene in which Cage throws a fit when his superior refuses a request to track down his target ranks as one of the highlights of the year. “You got your hand so far up Obama’s ass you can’t see anything but his shit anymore,” Evan says, a line that only Cage could deliver with equal doses of bonafide fury and camp.
Unfortunately, Schrader’s disdain for institutional dysfunction and misguided American ideals never reaches a satisfying end. The studio took the movie away from him in the editing room and it looks like it, especially during the sloven final act. As Evan and his co-worker head to Europe and close on their goal, “Dying of the Light” drops the poetic implications of its title — which draws from Dylan Thomas’ famous poem on perseverance in the face of imminent demise — and instead becomes a slack, literal-minded slog.
In the ensuing climax, the pair engage in a series of grisly showdowns involving knives, shootouts, and — in one memorable but equally ridiculous moment — an invasive finger. The thundering soundtrack doesn’t help. While its bleak assessment of American intelligence operatives imbues the story with some modicum of topicality, the specifics never keep pace. The movie becomes a bland action-drama lacking the sophistication to deal with its weightier themes. As a promising endeavor hacked to pieces, the movie’s fate mirrors its anti-hero’s own failed ambition.
Nevertheless, these shortcomings oddly enhance its appeal as a uniquely curious misfire. While Schrader can’t speak publicly about his project’s fate, the outcome testifies to the sheer challenge of edgy filmmaking produced on anything close to a large scale. If “Dying of the Light” was intended to transcend its formula, the end result has been forced back to Earth for the sake of superficial concerns.
Was Liongate justified in its decisions with the film? We may never know, but without director’s version available, it’s safe to assume the movie’s lack of originality had little to do with the vision that the “Taxi Drive” screenwriter had in mind.
With Schrader publicly stating his intention to move on to web series, his alleged final film gives the title an unintentional new meaning: More than simply exploring the struggle to survive, “Dying of the Light” illustrates a fear for the future of the movies as well — at least in America, where the studio system has grown as inept and old-timey as Cage’s psychotically disturbed character.
“Dying of the Light” opens in theaters and VOD on December 5.