‘Sympathy For the Devil’ Review: Nic Cage Can’t Pull This Thriller Over-The-Top By Himself

A buddy road-trip from hell that starts out snappy, silly, and surreal turns formulaic, and no amount of Cage can save it.

Nicolas Cage and Joel Kinnaman in ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ RLJE Films

Sympathy for the Devil, the latest addition to Nicolas Cage’s massive filmography, starts out with a nightmare scenario: a man’s wife is in labor and he’s rushing to the hospital to meet her, but when he finally pulls into the parking lot a deranged Nic Cage climbs into the backseat, points a gun at his head, and tells him to drive. Naturally, he starts driving. And so begins the buddy road-trip from hell that makes up much of Sympathy’s runtime, with Cage playing the Passenger, the unstoppable force to co-star Joel Kinnaman’s immovable object, the Driver, a blue-collar family man with no shortage of skeletons in his closet — or so Cage’s Passenger repeatedly insinuates. The Passenger knows the Driver’s name — David — but refuses to reveal his own, a mystery that remains unsolved even after the credits roll (where the pair are only “The Driver” and “The Passenger”). Who are these men really? Why is the Passenger doing this? What’s with all the Paradise Lost references? With these questions all but displayed on the dashboard, the film kicks into gear and rumbles to life.

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Directed by: Yuval Adler
Written by: Luke Paradise
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joel Kinnaman
Running time: 105 mins.

Written by Luke Paradise and directed by Israeli up-and-comer Yuval Adler, Sympathy hits its stride once the road trip gets underway. It’s snappy, silly, and surreal, with Cage providing quip after quip, many of which double as meta critiques of thriller cliches. The over-the-top choices and hamfisted symbolism (if something approaching a Halloween costume can be called symbolism) seem purposeful and ironic. After all, how could the Passenger’s Kool-Aid red hair, devilish beard, bedazzled scarlet blazer, and penchant for arson and off-the-cuff Biblical allusions be anything but intentionally campy? But the tone is hard to read: the eerie blue light and orange lens flares, the ominous background music, and the adherence to standard plot beats make it difficult to know if Sympathy is an absurdist parody capitalizing on Cage’s famous “nouveau-shamanictechnique or simply a conventional thriller offering fanservice to Cage-heads and not much else. 

Sympathy doesn’t resolve this identity crisis in a satisfying way. The entertaining surrealism that energized the opening movements fizzles out as the film reaches the third act, the reveals of which are both mundane and expected. Unsurprisingly, the Driver is hiding something: his past. And unsurprisingly, the Passenger is out for revenge against the Driver for reasons that will shock you only if Sympathy is the first thriller you’ve ever seen. (Although given how frequently Cage’s character has not-so-subtly alluded to the motivations behind his grudge, maybe not even then.) Kinnaman’s character is neither fleshed out nor compelling enough to shoulder the emotional and psychological burden Sympathy places on him — and even if he were, that wouldn’t change the fact that if Adler and Paradise had something to say about revenge, guilt, and the weight of sin, they do not seem to figure out what it is or how to frame it in a new, interesting light. As the credits roll, the title’s relevance hits like a sledgehammer, and almost as painfully: Sympathy for the Devil obviously wants us to ask ourselves who the real devil is and who we really have sympathy for, questions that feel unearned, unoriginal, and groan-inducing. 

Sympathy for the Devil is entertaining thanks to Cage, but formulaic otherwise. That’s alright; sometimes you want a wacky, blood-pumping rush through the neon haze of Las Vegas midnights. But what starts out surfing surreal, metaphysical waves runs aground in some pretty pedestrian plot resolutions, dashing early expectations that the weirdness, the iconography, and and the unceasing cascade of Cage tics will all pay off somehow. Those hopes are unwarranted — as Cage’s Passenger warns early on, “People always say ‘don’t assume the worst.’ Why? Sometimes, the worst is exactly what you should assume.”

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Sympathy For the Devil’ Review: Nic Cage Can’t Pull This Thriller Over-The-Top By Himself