‘Sympathy For the Devil’: Nic Cage can’t pull thriller over the top

Nicolas Cage and Joel Kinnaman in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. RLJE Movies

sympathetic to the devil, the latest addition to Nicolas Cage’s huge filmography, begins with a nightmare scenario: that of a man his wife is in labor and he rushes to the hospital to meet her, but when he finally pulls into the parking lot, a deranged Nic Cage climbs into the backseat, points a gun at his head and tells him to drive. Of course he starts driving. And so begins the buddy road trip from hell that is a big part Sympathy‘s runtime, starring Cage as the Passenger, the unstoppable force to – play with – Joel Kinnaman’s fixed object, the Driver, a family man with no shortage of skeletons in his closet or so Cage’s Passenger repeatedly insinuates. The passenger knows the name of the driver – David – but refuses to reveal his, a mystery that remains unsolved even after the credits roll (where the pair are only “The Driver” and “The Passenger”). Who are these men Real? Why is the passenger doing this? What’s with all lost paradise references? With these questions all but displayed on the dashboard, the movie kicks into gear and roars to life.

Directed by: Yuval Adler
Written by: Lucas Paradise
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joel Kinnaman
Duration: 105 minutes.

Written by Luke Paradise and directed by Israeli newcomer Yuval Adler, Sympathy gets going as soon as the road trip starts. It’s pithy, silly and surreal, with Cage delivering witticism after witticism, many of which double as meta-critiques of thriller clichés. The over-the-top choices and clumsy symbolism (if anything approaching a Halloween costume can be called symbolism) seem purposeful and tongue-in-cheek. After all, how could the passenger’s Kool-Aid’s red hair, devilish beard, dazzling scarlet blazer, and penchant for arson and off-the-cuff biblical allusions be anything? But deliberately campy? But the tone is hard to read: the eerie blue light and orange lens flares, ominous background music, and sticking to standard plot beats make it hard to know if Sympathy is an absurdist parody that plays on Cage’s famousnouveau-shamanictech or just a conventional thriller that provides fan service to Cage heads and not much else.

Sympathy does not satisfactorily resolve this identity crisis. The entertaining surrealism that sparked the opening moves fades away as the film reaches its third act, whose revelations are both mundane and expected. Unsurprisingly, the driver is hiding something: his past. And it’s not surprising that the passenger wants revenge on the driver for reasons that will only shock you if Sympathy is the first thriller you’ve ever seen. (Although given how often Cage’s character hasn’t alluded so subtly to the motivations behind his grudge, maybe not even then.) Kinnaman’s character isn’t fleshed out, nor is it compelling enough to carry the emotional and psychological burden. Sympathy puts on him – and even if he were, that wouldn’t change the fact that if Adler and Paradise had anything to say about revenge, guilt, and the weight of sin, they can’t seem to figure out what it is or how to put it in a new, interesting light. As the credits roll, the relevance of the title hits like a sledgehammer, and almost as painfully: Sympathetic to the devil naturally wants us to ask who the real devil is and who we really sympathize with, questions that feel undeservedunoriginal and groaning.

Sympathy for the Devil is entertaining thanks to Cage, but otherwise formal. Fine; sometimes you want a crazy, blood-curdling rush through the neon haze of Las Vegas midnight. But what starts out surfing surreal, metaphysical waves bogs down in some pretty pedestrian plot resolutions, shattering early expectations that the weirdness, iconography, and relentless cascade of Cage-tics will all pay off in one way or another. That hope is unfounded – as Cage’s Passenger warns early on: “People always say ‘don’t assume the worst’. Why? Sometimes the worst is just what you have to assume.”

Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.

'Sympathy For the Devil' review: Nic Cage can't pull this thriller over the top himself

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