Paul Schrader’s best screenplays have always been about internal struggles and he returns to this theme again with Dying of the Light. The film features Nicolas Cage’s best performance this decade, as Evan Lake, a terminally ill CIA agent who seeks revenge on the terrorist who tortured and traumatised him. Cage attacks the material with subtlety, wringing emotion and pathos from Schrader’s script. Meanwhile, the writer-director delivers a film that eschews Bourne-like action for dramatics, giving the film a feel that places it right beside the paranoia films of the ‘70s.
Schrader has been trying to get Dying of the Light made for nearly a decade, with Harrison Ford and Robert DeNiro both being attached to the film over the years and producer Nicolas Widing Refn was even set to direct when Ford was in the frame. Nicolas Cage may not have the curmudgeonly gravitas of Ford or DeNiro, but he more than makes this material his own. Cage is often lambasted for his over-the-top performances, but he keeps things low key here, displaying a different side as the ageing CIA operative. Anton Yelchin is somewhat miscast as Cage’s protege, he’s a touch too young to be like his confidant and helper. At times it looks like Cage is an over-dressed babysitter.
This isn’t a slick action-thriller – it’s low-key and restrained. The shoot-out finale is the only evidence that there may have been any studio interference (producers took the film from Schrader in the editing room). Schrader once told me that the key to good writing is to find something in your own life, disguise it and use it as the core concept for your story. Evan Lake’s anger at the changes within the CIA post-9-11 perfectly mirror Schrader’s upset at Hollywood for pushing the low-mid budget films out of the way in favour of big budget franchise movies.
Dying of the Light is something a little different. Sure, it covers most of the spy movie tropes, but this contains an impressive performance from Nicolas Cage. It’s not Paul Schrader’s hardest hitting script, but it’s good to see that survivors of the ‘70s can still pack a punch.