Paul Schrader is one of those big names in filmmaking I really want to cheer for. The man helped create some of the greatest American cinema has to offer, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and American Gigolo. I want to stand up on a chair and champion him as one of the industry’s most underrated filmmakers, constantly mistreated by ignorant, bloated studio executives. And when his latest thriller Dying of the Light came under scrutiny for being recut without Schrader’s sign-off, I wanted to join the protest in support of a filmmaker’s vision over mass-appeal studio tactics.
But if this Lionsgate-approved cut of Dying is any indication, Schrader’s work doesn’t really warrant the argument.
Dying follows CIA man Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage), survivor of ruthless torture at the hands of known terrorist Muhammad Benir (Alexander Karim). Benir is thought to be deceased, killed by the operatives that broke Lake loose. But years later, Lake receives intel from right-hand man Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin) that Benir may still be alive. The CIA questions Lake’s conclusions – the aging official is suffering from dementia, and when Lake refuses to back down, he is terminated. Driven as ever, Lake and Schultz go rogue to track down and kill Benir.
At this point in Dying, I began to think the film would be a mind-bending thriller a la Shutter Island or Total Recall, where an unreliable protagonist puts everything the audience is seeing into question. Is Benir’s resurgence real or imagined? The film’s plot of a secret agent gone rogue, rekindling old romance, with lots of violence, adventure, and excitement, like Total Recall, are conventions too clichéd to believe. Are they all in his head?
That’s what I get for thinking ahead. Dying, or at least the Dying Lionsgate has chosen to present, is merely a straightforward, unremarkable tale of revenge with a deceptively clever title and a protagonist who has headaches, forgets things, and occasionally wanders off. Thrilling.
That’s not to discredit Cage, giving his all to the performance, or Schrader, who lends an otherwise lackluster film some compelling lighting and direction. But there’s simply not enough ambiguity to Dying, its chopped-down, brisk 90-minute runtime leaving little impact and few memorable moments. And when the ending comes, it’s more expected than satisfying.
Perhaps something was lost in the editing room. Schrader’s cut was reportedly heavier on “stylistic flourishes” surrounding Lake’s condition. I’m imagining something akin to the style of an earlier Cage/Schrader collaboration, Martin Scorsese’s underrated Bringing Out the Dead. That visual flair might’ve at least lent the film some compelling imagery.
Still, it’s hard to deny that the politics behind the film remain far more interesting than the film itself. In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Lake sits face-to-face with his torturer and asks him if he thinks what he did mattered. Benir throws the question right back at Lake, to which Lake responds with silence. Perhaps that’s the real tragedy of Dying of the Light; for all the rabble-rousing of who disrespected who, whose cut is superior, ultimately the film doesn’t matter enough to demand even having the discussion. Which is a shame, because Schrader and Cage are big talents that deserve better.