Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Nicolas Cage Paradox

The power and peril of stardom in a post-theatrical age.
July 29, 2021
The Nicolas Cage Paradox
(Photo by Robert Marquardt/Getty Images / Shutterstock)

As anyone who has patronized streaming video services in the last few years will be happy to tell you, there are a lot of Nicolas Cage movies out there.

I don’t mean the classics like Raising Arizona or Face/Off or Con Air or Leaving Las Vegas or anything else from his great run during the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t even mean the middling big-budget franchise fare from the 2000s, the National Treasure movies or the Ghost Rider movies. I mean flicks like Prisoners of the Ghostland or Grand Isle or Primal or Running with the Devil or A Score to Settle or Kill Chain or Jiu Jitsu or Willy’s Wonderland, all of which have been released in just the last couple of years. Movies you stumbled across because some algorithm somewhere recommended them to you because you watched Knowing or Lord of War or Adaptation.

We’ve reached Peak Cage.

There’s a temptation to dismiss the glut of work as that of a has-been cashing in, an actor trading on faded stardom to rack up paychecks by giving audiences a familiar face working in a familiar, albeit heightened, milieu. You see this idea pop up from time to time. For instance, here’s Pauline Kael in the Atlantic:

It used to be said that great clowns, like Chaplin, always wanted to play Hamlet, but what happens in this country is that our Hamlets, like John Barrymore, turn into buffoons, shamelessly, pathetically mocking their public reputations. Bette Davis has made herself lovable by turning herself into a caricature of a harpy. . . . The women who were the biggest stars of the forties are either retired, semi-retired, or, like Davis, [Joan] Crawford, and [Olivia] de Havilland, have become the mad queens of Grand Guignol in the sixties, grotesques and comics, sometimes inadvertently.

Kael’s actual subject in this 1966 essay? Marlon Brando, whose “career indicates the new speed of these processes” as he was, by that point, “already a self-parodying comedian.” (The lesson, as always: beware of dismissing a genuine talent as a has-been before they’re actually in the ground.)

Dwight Macdonald also took aim at Barrymore, and the public’s participation in his decline, in his classic 1960 essay “Masscult and Midcult.” “For their part, the mass public liked [Barrymore] in this final stage of disintegration precisely because it showed them he was no better than they were, in fact he was a good deal worse,” Macdonald wrote.

There is undoubtedly some of that sort of schadenfreude when late-stage Cage is considered. “That guy’ll be in anything so long as he’s getting paid,” we scoff as we sit in front of our screen and read the description of Willy’s Wonderland (“A loner . . . wages war against possessed animatronic mascots while trapped inside Willy’s Wonderland, an abandoned family fun center.”) after Hulu’s algorithm recommends the movie to us. “When the taxman gets you by the balls, you’ll do whatever it takes to survive. I sympathize, brother!”

While there are actors to whom this sort of mockery undoubtedly applies—you try to sit through anything Bruce Willis has made in the last three years, his glowering puss reflecting less what his costars are doing on the screen than the internal clock in his head counting down the moments until he can leave set for good—I don’t think Cage is among them.

Regardless of the film’s subject matter, costars, director, or budget, Nicolas Cage is always doing something interesting onscreen. In the aforementioned Willy’s Wonderland, for instance, Cage is simply magnetic whether he’s using a pinball machine or scrubbing down the bathroom walls of the Chuck E. Cheese clone in which the film is set. He does weird little things—dancing with the pinball machine; brushing subway tile with a silent fury—that convey more about the strange intensity of his animatronic-animal-assassinating character than any dialogue could.

Jiu Jitsu, which recently hit Netflix, is a genuinely terrible film in traditional storytelling terms, just convoluted and dumb. It’s also glaringly obvious that when the director cuts to a wide shot during an action sequence he’s doing so to obscure the fact that Cage isn’t, you know, really doing any flying kicks. But when Cage is asked to deliver dialogue, he does so puckishly and with feeling, selling a slightly off-kilter craziness that hides a deeper well of emotion.

Nicolas Cage’s work is rife with “those tiny, mysterious interactions between the actor and the scene that make up the memorable moments in any good film,” as Manny Farber described the art of acting in his 1963 essay “The Fading Movie Star.” “Such tingling moments liberate the imagination of both actors and audience: they are simply curiosity flexing itself, spoofing, making connections to a new situation.” In other words, Cage’s movies are often worth watching, even when they’re terrible, because Cage himself is always engaged in that curious endeavor we call acting. When you’re done watching a Nicolas Cage movie, his work is generally the only thing left in your mind afterward. I speak to this fact from experience: Kill Chain is just 92 minutes long and I watched it less than a year ago, but I only really remember the half hour or so that involved Cage’s innkeeper sitting around, drinking, and bullshitting with a bunch of hired killers.

Cage’s career is flourishing—at least in terms of quantity of films, if not overall quality—because we’re in a very weird moment for the film industry, the beginning of a post-theatrical era where a star on a poster who can catch your eye and induce you to rent the movie from Redbox or click on the watch button on Prime Video is the single most important factor in the marketing of such movies. It’s a new sort of masscult, one bereft of the quality control of the studio system that nevertheless preys on the masses’ desire for the familiar.

If you’ve ever walked through the DVD aisle at a big box store, you’ll see what I mean. Rows of movies with titles seemingly generated by a computer program (for instance: Cosmic Sin, Hard Kill, Survive the Night, all with a grimacing Willis staring back you) starring folks whose names still mean a great deal to audiences that still buy and rent physical media (read: The Olds).

Occasionally this marketing strategy leads to truly hilarious outcomes, like the time I saw Abel Ferrara’s recent film, Siberia, on Target shelves with jacket copy that highlighted star Willem Dafoe’s work in Spider-Man. Now. Abel Ferrara has many qualities and is a fine director, but no one would accuse him of being a mainstream taste. Willem Dafoe is one of my favorite actors and doesn’t even really fit into the Willis-Cage-John Travolta mode detailed above; none of this is intended as a knock on him. But trying to sell Target audiences on “an exploration into the language of dreams” from the director of Bad Lieutenant by highlighting the star’s previous work as the villain from Spider-Man is, just objectively speaking, a goddamn riot.

This business model leads to some gems, such as the much-beloved-by-me Fatman (elevator pitch: Walton Goggins tries to assassinate Santa, who is played by Mel Gibson). But you have to sift through a lot of chaff like Force of Nature (elevator pitch: a retired cop, Gibson, has to foil a heist in the midst of a hurricane) to find the wheat.

The Nicolas Cage Paradox is, in part, a wheat and chaff problem: Fans of his work have more Cage than ever to enjoy, but there’s so much chaff that you have a harder time convincing non-obsessive fans that a new Cage movie is worth checking out. And it’s nearly impossible to convince people that his new work is worth checking out in a theater. When I published my review of Pig, I had two or three friends ask me where it was streaming. They couldn’t find it on VOD; couldn’t point them to a platform.

They didn’t even think to ask if it was playing on the big screen.

This is the heart of the Nicolas Cage Paradox. Because the scripts he accepts are generally of middling quality and because the directors he works with are generally the sort who have yet to make it or will never make it and because the casting budget is frequently so dominated by his own quote it means his supporting actors are of a lesser caliber, Nicolas Cage is often the only thing worth watching in these movies. Sure, the movies are mostly bad; he’s still always doing something fascinating in them, committing wholeheartedly to the part, acting with every muscle in his body rather than just reciting lines.

Most people don’t care about the wonders of termite art. Most people just want to watch a good movie. And Nicolas Cage being in a movie is sort of like a reverse signal: The average viewer knows there’s probably something wrong with the flick. And that, if you’ll excuse me, sucks. Because when he’s in something that fires on all cylinders, from director to writer to supporting cast, it’s genuine genius.

Cage has been in two of my favorite movies of the past few years: Mandy, released in 2018, and this summer’s Pig, about a man trying to recover his stolen truffle-hunting swine. They’ve very different in certain regards—Mandy is a prog-rock epic of swirling colors and sweeping psychedelic scope that veers into manic ultraviolence; Pig’s color palette is best described as muted and the extent of the action involves Cage’s character taking a series of blows to the face—but they do have some similarities that might help us understand the transcendent moments in late-stage Cage’s career.

For starters, there’s Cage himself. When the camera just rests on him he gives it so much to work with. There’s a moment in Mandy where, after suffering an unspeakable tragedy, he stumbles into a harshly lit bathroom, clothed in a t-shirt and tighty-whities, and just goes to town, chugging vodka, howling with rage. The emotional barrage is incoherent and frightening; indeed, at one point the camera, which had slowly been pushing in, juts back just a hair, as if the operator got too close to Cage’s pure, unfiltered anguish, and got scared. Pig is quieter and more thoughtful, lit with naturalistic grace by writer/director Michael Sarnoski, but you understand Cage’s character’s bond with his porcine pal in that film’s early moments, just watching the two interact. And when Cage lays into a former sous chef later in the film, the disgust practically radiates off of him; it’s like watching a switch flip.

But the other thing to look for is his supporting cast. In Mandy he’s surrounded by Andrea Riseborough, Bill Duke, and Richard Brake, intense actors with a depth of soul that shows up on their faces. Pig’s cast is smaller and tighter, but Alex Wolff has demonstrated in Hereditary and last week’s Old that he’s a genuine talent, and Adam Arkin (A Serious Man, Sons of Anarchy, and the TV show Fargo) has a quiet force of will behind his piercing eyes. This method of adjudging potential quality isn’t foolproof (the godawful Jiu Jitsu costars Frank Grillo and Tony Jaa, for instance, two actors I generally enjoy), but it helps as a guidepost.

Or you can just let the critics let you know which Cage films are for completists only and which are something special. Like so many truffle pigs, we have a pretty good nose for this sort of thing. And we are, for the most part, immune to the pitfalls of the paradox in question.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association