There are some roles which actors are born to play. There are some actors for whom roles are specifically written. Then there are those actors who perfectly fit a role you might not think before seeing them in said role would be that perfect fit. Nicholas Cage certainly fills this latter category in Dying of the Light.
I came across this 2014 film, billed as a psychological thriller, while channel surfing. It was about fifteen minutes in, but my TiVo still had those previous fifteen minutes, the description sounded interesting, so I hit record to make sure I got the whole thing, and started from the beginning. While the film has some slow parts, which seems to be such to stretch out the running time to 90 minutes more than anything else, all in all I enjoyed it.
Cage is Evan Lake, a longtime and highly decorated CIA agent. We are introduced to him as he has a flashback to a covert operation in Africa where is captured and tortured by an Islamic terrorist, Muhammad Banir. Among the other tortures, Lake has part of an ear mutilated. An extraction team intervenes before he can be killed, killing several of the terrorists, presumably including Banir. Lake doesn’t believe Banir is dead, and carries this belief with him while he continues working in the Agency for another 22 years. Just as the CIA is made aware of the possibility that Banir may be still alive, Lake learns he has frontotemporal dementia, the side effects of which…well, let’s just say they play perfectly into Nic Cage’s acting abilities and the type of roles he is more well known for.
Milton Schultz, aptly played by Anton Yelchin, is an analyst for the CIA who is a close friend of Lake’s. There is clearly a teacher-protege relationship going on, and Milt is quite fond of Lake. That fondness grows into protection as Lake reveals his condition to Milt. Due to the onset of the dementia, Lake is forcibly retired from the CIA, but with Milt’s help, undergoes one last mission to take out Banir in Africa.
The film’s production value reminded me of Cinemax’s Strike Back series, of which I’m a fan. It’s not big budget, but it gets the job done. The film itself is not without controversy, in that the studio re-edited and scored the film without writer/director Paul Schrader’s permission or input. Cage and Yelchin stood by Schrader in disavowing the finished film, and given the slow and disjointed points in the movie, I can understand why. When as a creative individual you put effort into a project, a project for which you have a distinct vision, and that is taken away from you while you have no legal recourse, well, I can understand Schrader’s frustration. He would go on to recut the movie to as close as possible to his original vision from DVD copies of the workprint. That version of the film, which he called Dark, can presumably be found on BitTorrent sites.
I do not plan to hunt that down, as I do not think it would greatly change my overall impression of the film, nor elevate what I believe is its greatest strength: the relationship between Lake and Milt.
In a world where masculine friendship and filial love has been minimized, it was refreshing to watch one friend go to the lengths Milton does to help someone he cares about, admires, and loves. Time and again, Milt makes sacrifices great and small for Lake, doing what he can to help his mentor fulfill his final mission. The conversations between the two of them are the glue of the film, and the scenes I enjoyed most.
Dying of the Light can be a little slow, it won’t be for everyone, and I was never on the edge of my seat as with some thrillers. But it makes up for its downsides with a story of friendship, sacrifice, and love that I found compelling enough to recommend it for that part of the plot.