Tom Jolliffe looks at the eclectic work of Nic Cage and his recent resurgence. Is there anyone more interesting to watch right now?
Nicolas Cage started his career in earnest. He progressed through a series of bit player roles, initially as Nicolas Coppola. A few of these roles, in Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married and The Cotton Club, would bring with them suggestions of nepotism. Director Francis Ford Coppola offering his nephew a leg up in the aforementioned. From the beginning of his career, Cage was on the back foot (his new stage name would act as an attempt to step out of the family name and try to make it on his own terms). In 1987 he’d play lead in a quirky comedy from the Coen brothers, Raising Arizona. The young creatives, not quite on top, but heading the right way, saw something in Cage that perfectly fit their comical sensibilities.
By this point in time Cage didn’t carry with him one reputation that has since attached itself to him. He wasn’t known for wild creative expression or flights of unrestrained performance. In fact, it was probably the opposite. As is the wont of critics, particularly when the barrel is aimed at a performer whose lineage might have boosted them above their station, shots were fired. Cage could occasionally be dismissed as boring, blank, sometimes even wooden. A laid back delivery, manner of speaking and a face that was sometimes not easy to read due to a certain stoicism. Few might have predicted that the cult of Cage we’re now well within, would be based off an innate gift to unshackle and explode like very few in the business can. The first signpost to Crazy-Cageville came with Vampire’s Kiss. At the time it went by without much notice and mediocre reviews. Cage’s wild, deliriously deranged performance as a man believing he is turning into a vampire had certainly been an antithesis to the restraint in some of his previous roles, but it wouldn’t yet carry the significance it does now.
Suddenly though, with some significant leading roles under his belt and a little buzz, he’d become interesting (and independently so). Wild at Heart brought Cage into the crazy world of David Lynch. If it happened now you might expect Cage to go as unrelentingly crazy as Laura Dern in Inland Empire, as it is, in Wild at Heart (alongside Lynch muse Dern) he’s fairly restrained (though still has moments, but not more than you’d expect in a Lynch film) as he and Dern find themselves on the run. The film closed off one decade and began another interesting era in Cage’s filmography. The early part would see critical acclaim continue and lead to Oscar glory in Leaving Las Vegas. A win which would beg the question, is Cage about to become a dominant force?
Indeed he would, but this wasn’t a run of epics, dramas and further critical adoration. Cage suddenly found himself thrust into the realm of blockbuster action. Seen in his early days as a little goofy and gangly, it wasn’t entirely expected but Cage would hit a run, starting with Michael Bay’s best work The Rock. Cage would become an action star. The Rock cast him as a music loving, slightly nerdy chemist reluctantly thrust into an Alcatraz raid with Ex-government agent, Mason (Sean Connery) who’s spent decades being wrongfully imprisoned. Cage’s own inimitable persona we’re now well versed in, had taken shape. Creative choices within his films, within scenes, moments, would be the unexpected choice. Cage’s quirky delivery was (is) divisive but at best always combined with characters that have a quiet contemplative side too.
He was hero and villain in face swap sci-fi action classic, Face/Off. He donned a ridiculous mullet and southern accent in cult action favourite Con Air as all around, laconic good guy, Cameron Poe. Within a decade encompassing films like Gone in 60 Seconds and National Treasure, he was becoming a box office draw. Among the tentpole releases he also found time to work with great directors like Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott. Fate would mark those collaborations as some of the more forgettable entries in those respective auteur CV’s but Cage still had his moments (particularly in Bringing Out the Dead and Matchstick Men). Additionally though, he would work with rising director Spike Jonze, from a Charlie Kaufman (semi-autobiographical) script in Adaptation playing twins with vastly different personalities. It was a power punch, Oscar-nominated movie that showed the breadth of his range within one film.
Box office magnetism tailed off, as questionable hair pieces became more frequent. There came a period in Cage’s career where his hair was a bigger talking point than the films. Cinematic entries then gave way to a long, continuous run of straight to video churn out jobs. Around a decade ago, Cage seemed to have run his course as a box office bet. Audiences had lost interest in his latest work, but whilst the DTV descent accelerated, the internet was also creating a new buzz running parallel. Cage was becoming part of the Meme generation. He was being reappraised, sometimes with a pinch (or fistful) of irony. Vampire’s Kiss was rediscovered (infamous even among those who only know moments and haven’t seen the whole film). Face/Off was further cemented to cult status. A debate was being opened like never before. Nic Cage: Great or terrible? He did a number of run of the mill video specials. Joe in 2013 was an exception and a timely reminder that Cage could do nuance as well as he could do explosive, but it went by largely unnoticed, not acting as the same kind of catalyst as say Mud for Matthew McConaughey.
What was needed, was a project that could adequately tune into Cage’s new found internet infamy. These fans weren’t watching Tokarev or Vengeance. Cage never gets Bruce Willis bored, but some of the roles were uninspired. Once again too, even though he would appear in films by Paul Schrader (whose erratic CV saw his Cage unions as forgettable entries) and Werner Herzog (an enjoyable re-imagining of Bad Lieutenant), he wasn’t hitting any waves. Then came Mom and Dad, an enjoyable and culty comedy that sees a pair of parents become suddenly murderous. It was an okay exercise in simple black comedy, a premise just about strong enough to maintain its lithe run time, but more importantly it tapped into the Cage persona created by a new generation of internet users. The post modern crazy Cage fascination suddenly had its first original. Then the perfect cult movie found its perfect star. Mandy arrived.
Panos Cosmatos brought forth a lucid fantasy nightmare world of kaleidoscopic colour. He created a movie that blended an opening tranquility as we see Red Miller’s (Cage) peaceful and remote home with his beloved Mandy. She’s taken and then killed by a travelling cult and the film switches into a chainsaw laden explosion of blood and guts where the previously refrained Cage shifts into crazy mode, bridged perfectly by one scene in a bathroom where his rage and anguish is released. Unlike Mom and Dad though (or more recently Willy’s Wonderland), whilst it features Cage unrestrained and throwing it all on screen, it actually did it without irony or reverence. It worked for the character and the films context. It was wild and crazy but not without grounding.
Interestingly for this current stage of Cage’s performance career, we’re seeing a slowing of his generic video specials. Even those, are now tending to offer him a platform for potential cult material. It kind of worked in Color Out of Space, which saw Richard Stanley return to directing after a long hiatus. Cage and Stanley hit the right respective notes, even if the film doesn’t quite find peak Lovecraft levels in its delivery. It may well be the best adaptation of that particular story however. The aforementioned Wally’s Wonderland was almost too cynical in its attempts at utilising the Cage persona, whilst the odd choice of having his character without dialogue, never quite works. For what it is, it’s okay, but we’re in an era that brought us Mandy, and fans kind of want more like this. What’s key though, is that Cage now has magnetism as a performer again. He has an audience. It’s not a big theatrical audience (is anyone getting that post Covid yet?) but in the burgeoning world of streaming, Cage is relevant once more.
In what might be the film of the year, Cage then delivers a rug pull in Pig. Michael Sarnoski’s film is pretty ingenious in flipping up expectations. Nic Cage has his truffle pig stolen. That premise alone, in 2021, brings with it significant connotations. One might be that Nic Cage will jump on the John Wick trend. Cage doing Wick with a Pig. Another suggestion might well be that Pig will offer a platform for Cage to go pig wild and erupt in the ways we know he can. It’s a concept that sounds crazy, but the genius (and an element that will actually lose it some fans expecting the expected) is that it’s actually the complete antithesis. The film does have some Wick-esque, world building. It also has a cutting slice at the pomposity of high end culinary snobbery. There is a sequence with an underground fight club run entirely for people in the culinary world. This appears one of the few remnants of that initial expectation for something crazy. The film is really a slow burning meditation on loss. What’s most impressive is a perpetual tease that Cage (a one time great of the culinary world now living as a recluse and dealing in truffles to get by) is going to explode. He’s always on the precipice of it but never goes over the edge. Just as you lean forward, expecting it to happen, it doesn’t. The performance is as subtle and nuanced as perhaps Cage has ever done (I wouldn’t expect it, but he should be getting Oscar recognition). It’s very subtle.
Next up Cage finds the almost heavenly match of director in Sion Sono, Japan’s specialist in the weird, wonderful and downright gonzo. There’s no danger for those craving the unrestrained Cage, that Prisoners of the Ghostland won’t deliver on that front. He’s also going to play a variation on himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Between these and Pig, going back to Mandy, one thing becomes clear; there’s an enigmatic scale with Cage. He has a unique range that in the current film world, few can match. Alongside Gary Oldman and Willem Dafoe, he could well be the most interesting performer around, and his enigmatic off screen persona certainly adds a particular je ne sais quoi. What are your thoughts on Nic Cage? Which performers are the most interesting in the game right now? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.