There is a stubbornness, a sense of faith and mission to Nicolas Cage's Evan Lake in Dying of the Light that puts you immediately in mind of the film's writer/director. Paul Schrader has never been the kind to "go gently into that good night", and his "fall" from one of the defining members of the 1970s "new Hollywood" into an also-ran filmmaker who struggles to get his films made (and, when he does get them made, seems to have to fight to have them seen) fits perfectly the character he has given Mr. Cage.
Haunted by the "terrorist that got away" a quarter of a century earlier and that landed him effectively behind the desk, Lake has been diagnosed with incurable dementia just when the cold trail of Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim) grows hot again. Even though his superiors have clearly decided to ground him over the health issues, the agent flatly embarks on the mission anyway, travelling to Romania and Kenya in order to confront his nemesis.
In many ways, Lake and Banir are two sides of the same coin, "true believers" who've never given up the "good fight" (depending, of course, on whose side you're on), hanging on for dear life even beyond all rhyme and reason - and that stubbornness is also relevant to the fact that Dying of the Light, a script that had been doing the Hollywood rounds for years, is another notch in Mr. Schrader's controversy belt. Following on from The Exorcist: Dominion, the 2003 horror thriller he was summarily dismissed from after the producers violently disliked his cut, and from the barely-released The Canyons, scripted by Bret Easton Ellis and starring Lindsay Lohan, the director was effectively shut out from editing Dying of the Light, and has disavowed the version commercially released alongside his cast and crew. (Even though he is prohibited of badmouthing it by contract, that hasn't stopped Mr. Schrader, Mr. Cage, co-star Anton Yelchin and exec producer Nicolas Winding Refn from making some waves.)
While there's no doubt this was indeed shot by Mr. Schrader, and many of his recurrent themes (most notably the sense of grace and redemption that runs through his entire oeuvre) are present and correct, the film's halting rhythm, its uneasy balance between poignant character study and cheap, throwaway actioner, certainly press the point of a schizophrenic hack job trying to salvage the material shot into a borderline commercial property. Though if what you want is a run-of-the-mill, direct-to-VOD action quickie starring Nicolas Cage, there's not much point in hiring Paul Schrader to do it; and if you did hire Paul Schrader, then what's the point of bowdlerizing his work into a run-of-the-mill, direct-to-VOD action quickie?
Of course, the question is: how much of Dying of the Light's weirdness was in the director's original cut and how much is the result of the producers' edit? Because, for all that, there's a sense that most of the script's set-ups are just something to be done with to set the stage for what really matters to Mr. Schrader. Plausibility flies off the window and plot holes accumulate so that he can hint at the poignancy of a man asking what his entire life was worth when everything he believes in can be taken from under him in no time at all. You can't help but think that's something paramount in the director's mind at the moment - and the sad fate of this film resonates eerily with its underlying melancholy.
It may even be true that Mr. Schrader's original cut isn't that much better (the auteur theory can sometimes be betrayed by the actual facts). But, for now despite the fascinating backstory and the intimations of what could have been, Dying of the Light remains an unconvincing, uninspired bust.
DYING OF THE LIGHT
Cast Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Alexander Karim, Irène Jacob
Director and screenwriter Paul Schrader; cinematographer Gabriel Kosuth (colour, widescreen); composer Frederik Wiedmann; designer Russell Barnes; costumes Oana Paunescu; editor Tim Silano; producers Scott Clayton, Gary A. Hirsch, Todd Williams and David Grovic; production companies Grindstone Entertainment Group, Tin Res Entertainment and Over Under Media
Screened March 1st 2015, Lisbon