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The Case For Nicolas Cage: One of The Greatest Actors of His Generation

By Petr Knava | Career Assessments | September 19, 2016 |

By Petr Knava | Career Assessments | September 19, 2016 |

There are some things that are easy to forget in this life. Things like birthdays; or how you got home last Friday night; or indeed perhaps the easiest of all: that Nicolas Cage — internet mockery magnet and human meme machine — is first and foremost, despite all the sideshows and distractions, a terrific actor.

It’s no one’s fault that we forget. He doesn’t exactly make it easy for us; it’s not difficult to lose sight of the truth, as it bobs periodically below the waves of globular dross that he puts out. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; Seeking Justice; fucking Knowing for fuck’s sake. Nicolas Cage has starred in some absolutely heinous turd-wrenchers, but even in these atrocities there is almost always a clue hidden that points the way towards the truth. He is never boring to watch; never less than compelling. Even in the most diabolical trash fire of a movie there’s always a degree of unpredictability that Nicolas Cage brings to the proceedings. Yes, he might have to rescue the American Constitution under PG-13 conditions, but Jesus you can’t ever be sure he won’t snap and decapitate George Washington. This is incidentally also why movies like The Rock and Con Air work. Nicolas Cage made a good action movie protagonist not because of any physique that he might have once cultivated, or any villainous script he was given to read. No, instead look to the barely contained grease fire behind his eyes. That’s something that you either just have, or you don’t. It’s a barely containable fire beamed to us from Mars; Nicolas Cage has it, and sometimes action movie directors manage to harness it the right way.

But we’re not here to talk about Con Air or The Rock — genuinely well crafted silly action spectacles though they are; or indeed those malformed morning regret movies like Trespass or Left Behind — Cage’s presence in which most likely being a consequence of his well-publicised financial troubles, rather than any unknowable, ineffable artistic vision.

No, in making the case for Nicolas Cage: fantastic actor, I would instead like to focus on a cross-section of the genuinely great movies that he has appeared in over the years. Ones that taken together showcase not only his inimitably mercurial presence, but his considerable talent, as well as his enviable range — not to mention longevity (the nigh-on thirty year gap between the earliest and latest movies we will look at speaks for itself.)

So then, here we go:

Raising Arizona, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1987
The Coen Brothers’ follow-up to their dark and steamy neo-noir debut, Blood Simple, is almost the polar opposite in tone. That ability to pivot seemingly effortlessly between pitch black, merciless depictions of human nature and off-the-wall screwball hijinks is one of their greatest strengths as filmmakers — as well as one of their creative signatures. The Coens don’t trade in polar dichotomies, however, and Raising Arizona, like most Coen Brothers movies — though firmly in the latter tonal camp — has shades of both worlds. Cage, still a young novice at this point in his career, gives a pitch perfect performance as the bumbling, earnest recidivist H.I. McDunnough. Full of drive and oddly focused energy he darts through the obstacle course the peculiar trickster god that rules the Coens universe lays out in front of him, and he brings a sweetly human element to this otherwise at times almost Biblical-seeming farce.

Red Rock West, dir. John Dahl, 1993
My love for John Dahl’s neo-noir masterpiece is no secret. It’s a wonderfully realised gritty gem, with a dangerous and fraught small town setting that new arrival Cage must walk like a tightrope if he wishes to make it out alive. Hitmen, femme fatales, and mistaken identities abound, and his character, improvising and playing sides against each other while avoiding the barrel of a gun is at the heart of it all.

Leaving Las Vegas, dir. Mike Figgis, 1995
Nicolas Cage has been nominated for an Academy Award twice in his career, winning once for Leaving Las Vegas. The movie, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien, is an absolutely devastating story of a suicidal alcoholic who quits his job and decamps to Las Vegas in order to drink himself to death. While there he meets and develops a relationship with a prostitute (played wonderfully by Elisabeth Shue). Budgetary constraints meant that Figgis had to shoot the movie on super 16mm film rather than 35mm, and the slightly ethereal, impressionistic quality this gives to proceedings is perfect for the story unfolding tragically before our eyes. Nicolas Cage more than deserved his Oscar here, as he shows us a man willingly walking to the edge of oblivion with full intention of falling off that edge, and he asks us to take his hand and walk there with him. It is subtle, it is heart-breaking, and it is perfectly handled.

Adaptation, dir. Spike Jonze, 2002
Still one of the finest movies of the new millennium, Spike Jonze’s telling of Charlie Kaufman’s meta-as-all-hell script is a story of Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage), as he attempts to adapt Susan Orlean’s book ‘The Orchid Thief’ into a movie, all the while a dramatized version of the events of the book plays alongside this main story. Kaufman’s fictional identical twin (also played by Cage) also features and has a writing credit on the actual movie.

So basically: Charlie Kaufman. But of course reducing Charlie Kaufman to a purveyor of convoluted, meta, too-clever trickery would be doing the man a great disservice, as he has always shown a great interest in, and deep affection for, the humans at the centre of his labyrinthine stories. Adaptation is no different, and Jonze found in Nicolas Cage the ideal craftsman to help create the two completely distinct fictionalised versions of his scriptwriter seen on screen. Charlie and Donald Kaufman appear as two polar opposites on the sibling spectrum: one introverted and neurotic, the other garrulous and confident. Witnessing Cage so totally inhabit and bring them both to life is a sometimes almost unbelievable pleasure. As with his best work he makes you forget about his tics and his idiosyncrasies. He delves deep into his characters’ psyches, and he creates fully realized, unique, scarred people.

Matchstick Men, dir. Ridley Scott, 2003

As with Red Rock West, I have spoken of my admiration for this movie before. It’s an underrated little gem of a con man movie from Ridley Scott, starring Cage, Sam Rockwell, and Alison Lohman, and even surrounded by two perfectly pitched performances, Cage shines. What’s even more impressive is that his character suffers from pretty severe OCD, which — as any number of movies featuring characters with similar disorders will attest — is usually a minefield for actors. Either they succumb to accurate-but-cartoonish overacting and an overreliance on the physical manifestations of the disorder, or they just plain don’t do their research and end up delivering some half-formed approximation. Cage skips through this minefield, leaving it distinctly un-exploded. For an actor that has become — not unfairly — known for overacting, his tightly wound but controlled performance here is something to behold. What’s even more impressive is that he never lets it overshadow the vulnerable core of his character. This is a recurring theme among Cage’s best work: you might be distracted by what’s immediately visible, but look past the surface and you will almost always find a solid, relatable centre.

Lord of War, dir. Andrew Niccol, 2005

Lord of War is a strange movie. Though I have seen it derided a fair bit on the internet I maintain that it is a scrappy, intelligent, and stylistically daring examination of morality as well as a damning indictment against the international arms trade. It is far from perfect, but it remains a compelling watch. One of the key pillars upon which it rests is Nicolas Cage’s central performance. Playing U.S.-based Ukrainian immigrant and arms dealer, Yuri Orlov, he constructs a fascinating study of a man. Undeniably immoral and sleazy, yet strangely soulful and empathetic, Cage’s Orlov is emblematic of many of the world’s hypocrisies. Slipping in between the spaces left by bigger powers, he swims in the wake of tragedy — sometimes even creating, or having a big hand in, the waves himself; and yet Cage’s characterisation somehow refuses to allow him to be reduced to a simple profit-driven angel of death. There’s something more there, and I can’t imagine anyone but Nicolas Cage pulling that off quite like he does here.

The Weather Man, dir. Gore Verbinski, 2005

I think I know just one other person, in real life, who has seen this movie. In fact, until they recommended it to me, I had heard nothing of it. After watching it I thanked them. It follows an ineffectual, self-victimised Chicago weatherman whose professional life is at an unsatisfying plateau, and whose personal life is on a slow but painful slide. It is a comedy. A very downbeat one with moments of real, earned pathos as well instances of laugh out loud humour that arise organically from character and circumstance. Nicolas Cage plays the weatherman, Dave, with sad eyes and occasional bursts of pathetic rage. He imbues his efforts at improving his lot and connecting with his estranged loved ones with genuine heart. It’s a wonderful, layered performance that shows again just how effective Cage’s fire can be when he is on a shorter leash.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, dir. Werner Herzog, 2009
And then there’s no leash at all.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a criminally underrated piece of gonzo brilliance from Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage — who has to share joint credit with the director for this monster. An unscrupulous, strung-out, drug-and-sex-addicted detective prowls the street of post-Katrina New Orleans, ranting and raving and bullying to get his way. Occasionally he wields a colossal handgun at old ladies in a retirement home. When he stumbles upon the scene of a grisly gang execution, however, his drive to solve the crime rises to compete with his baser instincts.

Neither a sequel nor a remake of Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant, Herzog’s ‘reimagining’ is not quite as dark as that movie. It is however shot through with a rich supply of black humour and strange, hallucinatory imagery. Nicolas Cage, seemingly directed to hysteria by Herzog, or just given free reign, gives one of the most inspired fever-dances of a performance in recent memory. Witnessing it is a bit of a revelation.

Joe, dir. David Gordon Green, 2013

David Gordon Green makes two different kinds of movies: soulful and meditative treatises on life, love, and youth (All The Real Girls, Snow Angels, Prince Avalanche); and filthy stoner comedies that vary from the inspired (Pineapple Express) to the flushable (Your Highness). Joe is in the former camp.

Hulking and elemental, Nicholas Cage plays ex-con Joe Ransom. Ransom is eking out a living as a labourer, trying to keep his worst impulses at bay. An encounter and budding friendship with a troubled kid (played by Tye Sheridan), however, begins to make this a challenge as Joe’s animal side begins to manifest itself in protective ways. Joe is fantastic movie overall, with Green pulling out all the stops in both his dialogue and camera work. As always he captures the rhythms of life and the peculiar feel of the Southern United States as only he and his contemporary and occasional collaborator, Jeff Nichols, seem to be able to these days. It is, however, Nicolas Cage, who walks away with this film. He embodies Joe Ransom completely. He makes him creature of elemental power and all-too-human emotion. It is an incredible showing of craft, empathy, and understanding, and is a timely reminder of why — despite all the meme-able white noise that flies around on the internet — Nicolas Cage is as much of a force to be reckoned with in the acting world as Joe Ransom is in Gordon Green’s rural Texas.

Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.