Review: The Dying of the Light
To put it in Scorsesean terms, Paul Schrader’s The Dying of the Light was supposed to be “one for them”: a commercially minded spec script that Schrader put on the market in 2009 with the intention of selling it to the highest bidder and then moving on with his career while someone else made the movie. And for a while, it seemed like that exact thing was going to happen. In May of that year, the script was optioned by producer Nick Wechsler and announced as one of the first projects of his producing deal with French studio Gaumont, then looking to expand its English-language slate. No less a Schrader acolyte than Nicolas Winding Refn (who recently told Variety “There would be no Drive without American Gigolo”) was attached to direct, with Harrison Ford in discussions to play the lead role of Evan Lake, a veteran CIA agent tracking a Bin Laden–esque terrorist while battling the early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia—an Alzheimer’s-like deteriorative brain condition.
The prospects sounded intriguing, if not exactly like a box-office bonanza. But then, supposedly, Ford balked (at the fact that Lake dies at the end) and Refn walked (upset with Ford’s mandated script changes), and for a while it seemed that Dying might well die there. Flash forward to 2013, with Schrader himself back in the headlines thanks to his crowdfunded objet du scandale, The Canyons, and the Dying script back in his hands. A new version of the project comes together, this time with a comeback-minded Nicolas Cage as Lake and Schrader himself directing on a $5 million budget (of which $1 million is Cage’s salary) and a location shoot in Romania (where much of the film is set) and Australia (doubling for Kenya). The money behind the movie is being supplied by one David Grovic (aka David Haring), a mysterious Bahamanian businessman whose prior film credits include the ludicrously bad John Cusack–Robert De Niro thriller The Bag Man, which Grovic directed and acted in too. Perhaps it could be argued that the writing was already visible on the wall, but an indie filmmaker like Schrader, with a willing backer before him, knows better than to ask too many questions.
Well, the best was not to come. As you may already have heard, there is a version of The Dying of the Light escaping into (a handful of) theaters this weekend, alongside a simultaneous VOD release. It ends with a title card that states “A Paul Schrader Film,” but it is such in name only—a version of the movie that neither Schrader nor Refn (who retains an executive producer credit) nor Cage endorse or have done anything to promote, assembled by a team of producers without the input of Schrader or the film’s credited editor, Tim Silano. In the past few months, a spirited game of he-said/they-said has played out in the press, with a gag-ordered Schrader accusing his producers of taking the film away from him when he refused to make all of their desired changes to his director’s cut, and said producers firing back that Schrader quit the picture without ever completing it, and that their version is, well, a lot better. (Meanwhile, the movie’s nominal distributor, Lionsgate, has said nothing at all, which in a way says everything.)
But what of the movie itself? As one who has seen both versions of Dying, I can report that in neither edit is Schrader’s latest a masterpiece, while in both it is an efficient and mostly effective B-grade thriller rooted in a distinctly Schraderian sense of guilt and moral anguish, and featuring a very fine performance by Cage. Compared to two of the most famous hatchet jobs in cinema history—the “short” versions of Heaven’s Gate and Once Upon a Time in America—you could even argue that Schrader has gotten off easy, with no major alterations to his narrative structure or the running time. And yet, and yet, and yet…
In both versions, Dying gives us a Lake who’s been removed from the field and stationed behind a desk as the hours tick down to his inevitable gold-watch retirement. But per Schrader’s Dylan Thomas title (fresh from its mantra-like use in Interstellar), Lake refuses to go gentle into that good night, intent on tracking down the Arab terrorist, Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim) who kidnapped and tortured him two decades earlier in an attempt to unmask a CIA sleeper agent in his ranks. The cavalry arrived just in time to extract Lake, but not before he’d taken a bullet and left behind a piece of his right ear for his troubles. Like Travis Bickle and Hardcore’s Jake VanDorn before him, Lake is obsessively driven, a man on a mission, convinced that the presumed-dead Banir is in fact still alive, a theory that gains traction when a Kenyan national is found ferrying experimental drugs from Bucharest to Mombasa—drugs used to treat the very rare form of anemia from which Banir was known to suffer. But with Lake’s own fatal medical condition out of the bag, he can rally no internal support at an Agency eager to put him out to pasture. So he goes rogue, with a dutiful young agent (Anton Yelchin) in tow.
In some ways suggesting a cross between the Bourne franchise and Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (with its belated reunion of torturer and victim), Dying moves swiftly through the obligatory procedural moves en route to what clearly interests Schrader most: the inevitable face-off between these two doomed men, one slowly being poisoned by his own blood, the other by his brain. And despite Schrader’s penchant for somewhat perfunctory political stake-planting (as when Banir regales Lake with the familiar tale of Islamic ideologue Sayyid Qutb’s horrified visit to the decadent West in the late 1940s), those scenes nevertheless carry a stark power. As in David Gordon Green’s Joe, Cage seems committed to acting again in a way he hasn’t for most of the last decade (in which he became something of the poor man’s Liam Neeson in an effort to pay off a massive tax debt). There’s real fear in his Lake, the terror of a man slipping in and out of his own consciousness, and the Swedish-born Karim (who had a small role in Zero Dark Thirty) is equally impressive, holding on to every fiber of his fanaticism with his weakened, weary body.
So The Dying of the Light isn’t so much a massacred film as a dismembered one. What’s missing in the theatrical cut, like the missing piece of Lake’s ear, is something that might pass unnoticed by many but which nevertheless leaves a hole. It is, in short, Schrader’s signature, as if the movie had been directed by some fugitive from justice who dipped his fingers in acid to remove the prints. The principal stylistic concept of Schrader’s version (which exists only in workprint form) was that we would see the world through Evan Lake’s increasingly unreliable eyes, with distorted camera angles and sound effects used to suggest his weakening grasp on reality. Those effects have been jettisoned here in favor of a more conventional strategy of having Lake’s periodic head pains trigger jagged flashbacks to his torture at the hands of Banir (a scene Schrader originally dispensed with under the opening credits). Also removed: a prologue in which medical scans of Lake’s brain were accompanied by voiceover narration explaining his condition, a tip of Schrader’s hat to the stomach X-ray opening of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (a film, and filmmaker, one doubts Schrader’s backers have ever heard of).
In the end, it’s obvious that The Dying of the Light itself will pass into the night remarked upon by few, save for a handful of still-gainfully-employed critics and bloggers. Even in his post-Canyons glow, and with Refn’s added hipster cachet, Schrader is not quite fashionable enough to be taken up as a cause à la Kenneth Lonergan or James Gray (nor is Dying, ultimately, as worthy a film as Margaret or The Immigrant). But if nothing else Dying serves as one more all-too-familiar tale of the little respect afforded major American filmmakers at the studio and indie level alike, and of the countless producers, distributors, and financiers who will happily mangle an artist’s vision, only to still treat the end product like yesterday’s fish wrap. Something is dying here, indeed, and Paul Schrader’s career is the least of it.