Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Levels Of Nicolas Cage

It's fair to say that Nicolas Cage has lost his way. World Trade Center, The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, Next, National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing, doesn't read like the resume of an OSCAR winning actor, does it? Of course, most OSCAR winners make a blockbuster or high concept movie after their glory (Jamie Foxx - Stealth, Philip Seymour Hoffman - Mission Impossible 3, Forest Whittaker - Vantage Point, as three recent examples) but for Cage, he's been there, saved himself, and come back around. Younger audiences will be totally unaware of his talent, something the actor has in abundance. And now that he's on the verge of a revival, i've developed a theory for his talent. I call it 'The Levels Of Nicolas Cage'. There are three levels, and it goes something like this:
1.) Twitchy - This is where Cage acts with a sort of paranoia, constantly looking over his shoulder, with occasional ticks and involuntary movements. He'll fling his hands around, jerk his neck and slur his speech. This level itself has a few sub-levels, it can be played straight, or for comic effect.
2.) Dark - This is where Cage forces his twitchy elements inwards - he explores the soul of a character. He'll spend half of the movie looking down at the ground sternly, with a manic look in his eyes, slinking around with the posture of a hunchback, moaning and groaning, occasionally leaning on inanimate objects.
3.) Deranged - This is where Cage combines the first two elements to absurd effect. He'll shout, scream, leap around, fall over, fling his arms, experiment with accents - basically becoming a force of nature. This is the key Nicolas Cage performance.
His two revival films are Kick Ass, released in the UK this week, and Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (pictured above), released in the UK this May. The former film seems to be of the twitchy variety, while the latter finds him back on deranged form.
So as a celebration, I bring you a retrospective article highlighting six films from his back-catalogue that back up the theory. Of course, there will be spoilers. We'll start with 'Twitchy'.

1.) Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Adaptation tells the story of Charlie and Donald Kaufman, twin screenwriters (well, Donald becomes one during the film). Charlie has just come off the set of Being John Malkovich (yes, it's very complicated) and he's a mess - balding, puffy, socially inept - he sweats and twitches his way through a meeting that will determine his future and a narration from Cage reveals the levels on which he is over-analyzing the event. He's neurosis on legs - totally unaware of everything around him, stressed and suffering from massive anxiety. It seems that he's so focused on his own downfall, he'll no doubt bring it on himself. Donald is the other half of the performance, an upbeat, enjoyably twitchy over-achiever (who seems to do nothing), which reveals the comic side of this level. He annoys his brother by asking questions about everything and seems to exist in a simplistic world of his own where everything just...happens. It's some of Cage's best work, and the best of his twitchy performances. It helps that the film has an incredibly smart and witty screenplay from the real Charlie Kaufman (a true genuis of our time) and assured direction from Jonze. It's an essential film in the Cage canon, and an interesting companion piece (performance wise) to the second film on this level.
Charlie: "Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. Maybe if I were happier, my hair wouldn't be falling out. Life is short. I need to make the most of it. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I'm a walking cliche. I really need to get to the doctor and have my leg checked..."

2.) Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott, 2003)

Matchstick Men sees Cage playing professional con-man Roy Waller, who learns that he has a daughter. Roy is one of the most phobic characters in cinema history - he obsessively cleans his house from top to bottom - carpets, glass doors, counters - every day he's not on a con, he pops pills on his sofa, surveying any possible problem from a distance. Even when he's out he suffers from every tick under the sun - he's a hypochondriac, agoraphobic and OCD, jerking himself from road to pavement. It's a miserable, hollow existence, and Cage plays it with relish. But Roy is also a smart, determined man who knows the ins and outs of his job.
Roy: "Look, Doc, I spent last Tuesday watching fibers on my carpet. And the whole time I was watching my carpet, I was worrying that I, I might vomit. And the whole time, I was thinking, "I'm a grown man. I should know what goes on in my head." And the more I thought about it...the more I realized I should just blow my brains out and end it all. But then I thought, well, if I thought more about blowing my brains out...I start worrying about what that was going to do to my goddamn carpet."

3.) Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)

Cage won the 1996 Best Actor OSCAR for his portrayal of Ben, an alcoholic who travels to Vegas to end his life. There he meets hooker Sera (Elisabeth Shue, never better) and they begin on a destructive love affair. Ben is easily the most tragic character Cage has ever played, a desperate, alcohol soaked loser, facing the end of the world. He's self destructive in a way that makes him hard to watch, but also deeply sympathetic. It's hard to like Ben, but it's even harder to feel nothing and not want to know why he is where he is. Cage does have some external ticks in this performance but it's mostly very internal, a soul baring display of humanity that ultimately ends the very way we fear it will. The one condition of his relationship with Sera is that she has to accept him the way he is - stumbling through busy streets, picking fights and falling through glass tables. But after she asks him to get help, he falls deeper into the pit of despair, and his fate is decided one night, in a dingy hotel room. Cage humanizes Ben in a way that only he could, and is worth every bit of that OSCAR.
Ben: "I'll tell you, right now...I'm in love with you. But, be that as it may, I am not here to force my twisted soul into your life."

4.) Bringing Out The Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999)

This underrated Scorsese film sees Cage playing a paramedic named Frank Pierce, called out every night to save a life, when he can't even save his own. He and his partners drive the streets of the aptly named Hell's Kitchen and come across the drug dealers, pimps and dark souls of the night. Exploring the underbelly and outsiders once again, Scorsese channels a deeply internal struggle in Cage as Frank is haunted by the ghosts of people he failed to save. The supernatural presence is always with him - it's in the way he lumbers around, the way he talks to his coworkers. Frank is disconnect from the world and the people around him, so deep into the hole of human existence, that sometimes it's possible to think we're really in Hell. He connects with a woman named Mary (Patricia Arquette) who offers him the chance of a new beginning (and ties into Scorsese's themes of religion), but Frank is an indecisive soul. Ultimately, he needs redemption, but he's an insomniac, a burnt out creature of the night and on the graveyard shift he's the only one who really suffers. In a key scene, Frank tries to save a drug dealer impaled on a spike. It's an excruciating scene - graphically bloody, vertigo inducing and bleak. But the hardest thing to watch is Frank, staring down with bloodshot eyes, desperately trying to reassure the dealer that he's going to live - when Frank himself might not even make it through the night.
Frank: "I'm sick, Tom. I need a cure. Vitamin B cocktail, followed by an amp of glucose and a drop of adrenaline. Not as good as beer, but it's all I got."

5.) Wild At Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

David Lynch's hyper-violent, psycho-sexual fairytale - a whirlwind mix of The Wizard Of Oz and The Twilight Zone, sees Cage as Elvis lookalike Sailor Ripley, deeply in love with Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). Being a Lynch film, explaining the plot seems rather redundant, but over the course of the movie things go from bad to worse for the couple, and Cage amps up the madness. As seen in the scene above, Sailor has a temper and will do anything to keep the love of his life safe. In a key scene Sailor and Lula are dancing in a heavy metal club, when a guy starts rubbing himself against Lula. Sailor stops the band and asks the guy, politely, to apologise. When he won't, Sailor beats the hell out of him. He's crazy, that's for sure, but he's also a romantic, tender soul. In order to help support Lula after she discovers she's pregnant, Sailor agrees to rob a bank with Bobby Peru (a disgustingly slimy Willem Dafoe). It all goes wrong and he does time, but 10 years later the eccentric Sailor rushes through a traffic jam to be reunited with his lover. It may be one of Cage's most out-there performances, relying on thick accents (or rather, impressions), head twitches, high kicks and sparkly suits - all the while orchestrated by heavy metal - but it's also one of his most real. Head-bangin' good.
Sailor: "This is a snakeskin jacket! And for me it's a symbol of my individuality, and my personal freedom."

6.) Vampire's Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1988)

So, we've saved the best until last. Sadly underseen and massively underrated, Vampire's Kiss features the essential off the rails, lost-his-mind, batshit crazy Nicolas Cage performance. He plays Peter Loew, a publishing executive, who, after being bitten by a vampire, becomes crazier and more erratic to the people around him. Of course, this being a horror movie(ish) it's also a sharp satire on the cut-throat world of business, and several readings into the film have Loew as a schizophrenic or a rabies victim . Cage's performance displays wonderful use of accents - his work here falls halfway between Ted Logan and Truman Capote - his hairstyle, when fully unleashed, is like Bob Mortimer's 'Croc Botherer'. He angrily recites the alphabet, devours a pigeon, flounders around corridors and nightclubs wide eyed and with false teeth, and in a final moment of phallic imagery holds a stake up to his crotch and demands "leave me the fuck alone!" to thin air. It's a pitch black comedy about a man so alone and on the edge - when you're not laughing at Cage's hysterical overacting, you're feeling for him. Full of ticks, extravagant neck jerks and hand movements, Loew is a desperate soul who, rather than really becoming a vampire, lets his loneliness and emptiness manifest into a monster. It's a truly essential watch, and one you'll likely never forget.
Peter Loew: "Am I getting through to you, Alva?"

But of course, this list is forgetting the action-based madness of Face/Off (John Woo, 1997) or his brilliant turn in the Coen's Raising Arizona (1987). It's also totally ignoring his lesser 90s work including Guarding Tess (Hugh Wilson, 1994), City Of Angels (Brad Silberling, 1998) or The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996) - although that final entry does have him playing a character named Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, surely a plus to any movie. But all these movies, and his early 00s work like Gone In Sixty Seconds (Dominic Sena, 2000) and The Family Man (Brett Ratner, 2000) apply to the level theory. The work that really confirms the rule? His career in Japanese adverts. Didn't know he had one? Take a look below and then jump onto YouTube. Nicolas Cage's all you need...

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