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Sympathy for the Devil

I’m really not trying to make a cute play on words by calling “Sympathy for the Devil” godawful.

Directed by Yuval Adler from a script by Luke Paradise and co-produced by star Nicolas Cage, who's once again leaning hard into his “throwing garbage against the wall to see if it sticks” mode of accepting projects, this is kinda-sorta what they call in the theater a “two-hander,” one in which the beleaguered Ordinary Dude played by Joel Kinnaman runs afoul of a maniacal evildoer taking him on the opposite of a joy ride, at gunpoint, out of Las Vegas and into the unknown. 

We learn right off the bat that Kinnaman’s character, unnamed at this point—he’ll get two names later, but family members call him David—is about to be a father. He’s driving to a hospital to be with his wife after he’s dropped off his adorable tow-headed little fella. In a parking garage, though, is a guy with deep scarlet hair, a demonic goatee, and a revolver—that’s Cage (did you guess?), whose character is also unnamed. (He plays “The Passenger,” you see, and this lack-of-nomenclature gambit can work if the movie is good enough—see Walter Hill’s “The Driver”—but feels pretentious when the movie is, well, this.)

The problem we have right from the get-go is that neither of these personages gives the viewer much to care about. Sure, Kinnaman’s about to be a dad for the second time, but we know plenty of bad and indifferent folks who are fathers. As for Cage’s character, he’s not a character at all. He’s a Nic Cage mood ring designed to allow Nic Cage to do all sorts of wacky Nic Cage stuff. He sweats. He bugs out his eyes. He grins maniacally. He yells. He shrieks. He puts Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife” on the jukebox at a diner he’s about to shoot up and dances to the song while bellowing the lyrics. At this point in the movie, about 52 minutes in, I figured I should be earning combat pay for continuing to watch.

Is there a plot? Well, yes. Cage’s character insists he knows David from long ago. Given the actions he describes—criminal bookkeeping, insanity, murder, lots of shady underworld figures—it sounds like that “long ago” was maybe the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, where lots of would-be Tarantino clones were thriving.

When the narrative isn’t tiring us, Cage talks about what his revolver will do to Kinnaman if and when he shoots him in the face or the back of the head. Does the verbal description of getting shot in the head or face make the prospective shooting victim more fearful than the mere presence of a gun pointed at those areas? So this movie believes. Although this may be more a matter of filling up time, giving Cage “provocative” things to say in this pointless exercise. Maybe during one of his drafts, screenwriter Paradise figured out he was leaning on the device pretty hard because there’s a line late in the film where the character refers to the habit. Cage also says things like, “The truth is rarely plain and never simple,” and he shows a lot of nerve when he upbraids Kinnaman's character for his “cliched” family story.

This is not, I should clarify, strictly a two-hander. There’s a cop, guess what happens to him, and there are diner staffers and customers. Guess what happens to them. “We still have miles to go before we sleep,” Cage’s ostensible Devil says early in the movie. And indeed, it does feel endless.

Now playing in theaters. 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Sympathy for the Devil movie poster

Sympathy for the Devil (2023)

Rated R

90 minutes

Cast

Nicolas Cage as The Passenger

Joel Kinnaman as The Driver

Kaiwi Lyman as Colleague

Burns Burns as Owner

Cameron Lee Price as Cop

Rich Hopkins as The Trucker

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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