Dying Of The Light


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Dying Of The Light
"A largely conventional thriller about the last-gasp of mission of a die-hard CIA agent that is lent moments of surprising poignancy and glimmers of madness thanks to Nic Cage's performance."

It's hard not to wonder what might of been as you watch Dying Of The Light - a largely conventional thriller about the last-gasp mission of a die-hard CIA agent that is lent moments of surprising poignancy and glimmers of madness thanks to Nic Cage's performance, which is unpredictable and strain-at-the-boundaries enough to make you feel as though the film might become more interesting at any moment.

But, like his dementia-struck central character Evan Lake, you might be confused about how we got here - and, like him, the answer is, tortuously. In fact the story behind the scenes is far more compelling than the one on screen.

Copy picture

The film bears the writing and directing brand of Paul Schrader but, originally, he had no intention of being the man behind the camera. That, was slated to be Drive's Nicolas Winding Refn, with Harrison Ford in the central role. Ford, reportedly decided he didn't like his character's arc and his tinkering caused Refn to step aside, although he retains an executive producer credit. All of which brings us to 2013, with Cage in the role and Schrader, post the critically kicked (although not by this website) The Canyons, on directing point.

That was not the end of the story as, after he completed his first cut of the film, the producers didn't like the way it had gone and demanded changes, which Schrader refused to make. Schrader - who claims it was only during filming that he realised "the film needed to skew to the main character and as he degenerated, the film should degenerate" - says that in this case "the lions won", surely a barbed reference to distributor Lionsgate.

The film was "cut, re-edited, scored and mixed" without Schrader's input or that of his originally intended editor Tim Silano and, though he couldn't take his name from the film, the director along with Refn, Cage and his co-star Anton Yelchin appeared in a silent protest photo on the day of release, wearing T-shirts, quoting a gagging clause, ending, "I have no comment on the film or others connected with the picture”.

And so, to the end result - a film that seems almost ashamed of its best ideas. We meet Lake in his youth, in a brutal flashback sequence suggesting the origins of his current brain decline. There, in what is one of many seemingly futile gestures in the film, he is flatly refusing to give up a piece of information to terrorist Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim) for little other reason than bloody mindedness.

Fast-forward to the present and the battle-scarred, ear-ripped Lake is giving gung-ho speeches to new Agency recruits in between driving a desk and getting diagnosed with the aggressive dementia that will be turning out the lights sooner rather than later. When his bosses get wind of the fact he's heading to the land where everything is forgot, they ditch him in a move that just happens to coincide with his young acolyte Milt Schultz (Yelchin) getting the first lead on Banir for 20 years.

In the sort of coincidence that this kind of movie barely gets away with, Banir is dying too - from a blood disorder - and there's a chance for Lake and Schultz to get on his trail via a doctor in Bucharest, Romania. All of this, via one or two decent chase sequences and an under-used love interest (Irène Jacob, bringing a soulfulness way beyond the script), is of course leading to the inevitable showdown between the two men.

This is by far the most interesting idea of the movie as the pair's pointless fanaticism - Lake's obsession with finding Banir and Banir's fundamentalist views - go head to head despite the no-win situation. Somehow, the climactic, or you might view it as deliberately anti-climatic, moment is squandered by the mainstream edit, Lake's dislocation, in particular, never fully allowed to have free rein. It's as though a character study has been edited by someone who only cares about where the next blood splatter is coming from.

If you're still wondering what might have been, there is a possibility out there. Although the producers refused to let Schrader recut the film for release on his own dime, he went ahead and made a different version anyway, named Dark, edited by Ben Rodriguez. The young editor, who trained under Natural Born Killers editor Hank Corwin, shot fly mobile phone footage, which Schrader incorporates to give more of an indication of Cage's unhinged state of mind.

The director describes it as, "Nic Cage, meets Stan Brakhage" - you can get an idea of it from the clips shown at a Masterclass Schrader gave at Rotterdam Film Festival, online here, which is well worth a watch in its own right.

Schrader and Rodriguez have dispensed with the clear, clinical feel of the original print in favour of darker atmospheres and jaundiced yellows. Looking at the clips, the result is raw but does bring a directorial skittishness that better matches Cage's performance. It's impossible to say whether the entire end result is an improvement unless you go to the film archive at UCLA, Texas' Harry Ransom Center or New York's MoMA, which all have copies - but there's no doubt it will at least have more psychological interest and artistic integrity.

While the film may have seen the dying of Schrader's initial plan, it seems it may have indirectly led to a rebirth in terms of the way that he views the construction of films in the modern era and his approach to visual imagery, a tantalising thought going forward.

Reviewed on: 30 May 2018
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A dementia-hit CIA agent goes rogue to take down an old enemy.
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