Sympathy For The Devil


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sympathy For The Devil
"Brilliantly paced and uncomfortable in all the right ways, Sympathy For The Devil is a triumph." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

What will become of cinema when Nicolas Cage is no longer working? There are some roles which can really only be played by him. This film features one of them. Alongside it there’s an equally impressive performance from Joel Kinnaman, the complexity of which viewers may not fully appreciate until the end, when what may have seemed like a cleverly structured, gratuitously violent thriller shifts gears and both lead actors get to access their full range, demonstrating that they can break hearts as well as other body parts.

We first meet Kinnaman’s character when he’s taking his young son to stay with a relative before racing to the hospital where his wife is giving birth. Through nervous phone calls we learn that the couple have previously suffered a stillbirth, so this is a more than usually tense situation. Struggling to calm his fears as he navigates traffic, he makes it all the way to the hospital car park, but there, before he can get out of his vehicle, Cage’s character gets into it, points a gun at the back of his head and says, “Drive”.

With security cameras almost certainly present, it seems like an odd place for a carjacking. After some pleading, the driver does as he is bid, recognising that he really doesn’t have a choice. Where are they going? The passenger spins him a couple of different stories. It’s hard to know what to believe. “This is the bit where you tell me about your wife and your son,” the passenger complains, when the driver pleads for his life. Is he using that phrase generically or does he know something about the driver’s family? If he did, he later suggests, then it would be foolish for the driver to run, because they might suffer as a result. Luke Paradise’s script keeps us uncertain, off balance, as the already fraught situation is complicated by a series of power games. Initially stunned into inaction, like a rabbit in the headlights, the driver begins to test the boundaries of the situation, looking for a way out.

Garishly lit and highly stylised, the film offsets its streamlined plot with excess elsewhere. Biting off all the scenery he can chew, Cage struts around with pink hair and a striking red jacket which no doubt symbolises individuality and belief in personal freedom. He’s a man who can make a spacious, depopulated diner feel overcrowded all by himself. Director Yuval Adler also knows how to take advantage of having a star who is quick on the draw. Great work with music and sound design turns scenes when the bullets start flying into a brutal ballet, and once fire enters the equation, the resulting hellscape will have you wondering if the film’s title should be taken literally. This said, it’s the balance of sympathies eventually achieved which will blindside you.

Kinnaman keeps his performance restrained, conjuring up a fraught everyman whose sometimes surprising competence shows us his intelligence and adds to our own sense of helplessness. There are vanishingly few moments here when you will imagine that you could handle the situation better. With his modest haircut soon in disarray, his checked shirt rumpled and his soft skin blooming with bruises, he bears a passing resemblance to a certain Viggo Mortensen character, but not of the army-raising variety. Whilst the passenger dominates with physical force and force of personality, the driver must rely on observation, insight and sheer determination to hold on, to try to get back to the people who depend on him.

Brilliantly paced and uncomfortable in all the right ways, Sympathy For The Devil is a triumph. Cage fans will love it. Thriller fans are in for a hell of a ride. More circumspect filmgoers might be pleasantly surprised by what it delivers.

Sympathy For The Devil screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 24 Jul 2023
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Sympathy For The Devil packshot
After being forced to drive a mysterious passenger at gunpoint, a man finds himself in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse where it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems.
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Director: Yuval Adler

Writer: Luke Paradise

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joel Kinnaman, Kaiwi Lyman, Nancy Good, Cameron Lee Price, Burns Burns, Rich Hopkins, Alexis Zollicoffer

Year: 2023

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US


Fantasia 2023

Streaming on: Amazon

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