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Nicolas Cage Goes Entertainingly Mad

Nicolas Cage Goes Entertainingly Mad

There’s no point in hiring Nicolas Cage if you’re not going to let him rip with a wackadoodle, OTT performance, and he duly delivers in the sly, psychological thriller The Surfer. Calibrating his character’s descent into mental and physical disarray so that it happens by evenly distributed degrees, Cage is in only moderately demented form overall here. That suits director Lorcan Finnegan (Without Name, Vivarium) and screenwriter Thomas Martin’s ambitions to call back to and yet also spoof vintage Australian New Wave films like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), dreamtime stories about alienated outsiders.

Toxic masculinity, the Big Bad de nos jours, also seems to be on their mind although the performances and cinematic quirks (zooms, jump cuts, all that jazz) are so hammy and gestural there’s nothing subtle about the critique. But that’s what makes it fun.

The Surfer

The Bottom Line

Tubular fun.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julian McMahon, Nic Cassim, Miranda Tapsell, Alexander Bertrand, Justin Rosniak
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Thomas Martin

1 hour 39 minutes

Unfolding largely on a beach and its adjacent parking lot in Western Australia, but about a man who is trapped by his own compulsions, The Surfer must be one of the most claustrophobic films that takes place almost entirely outdoors. Hold on, there are a couple of interiors: a grotty public toilet, the inside of a few cars, and a shack on the beach where local antagonists of the eponymous unnamed hero, the surfer (Cage), hang out. But the frequent zooms into the surfer’s twitchy eyes, sudden flashes back and forward, and shimmering shots that look like they’ve been filmed underwater even when on dry land all suggest the story might be unfolding in the surfer’s head as his sanity unravels.

At first, he seems like just another slick American dad, wealthy and smooth as an otter, when first met driving his teenage son (Finn Little) for a surf on Luna Beach. This particular strip of coast is one the surfer knows well, because despite his thoroughly Los Angeleno vowels and cadence, he grew up around here, in a house one can see best while in the water, waiting to catch a wave. The surfer is in negotiations with the owner, a realtor and his own financial broker to buy his childhood home, but he’s been outbid by a cash buyer and needs to raise another 100K in Australian dollars.

Cage injects a whiff of barely controlled desperation into these early scenes, suggesting the surfer may be less put together than the cream suit and silver Lexus suggest. In the film’s press notes, Finnegan and Martin talk about being partially inspired by the classic 1968 film The Swimmer, an adaptation of a John Cheever short story that stars Burt Lancaster as a seemingly wealthy suburban man attempting to “swim” through his neighbors’ pools to get back to his family. The swimmer encounters increasingly hostile receptions at the houses he visits, suggesting things are not all they seem.

A similar slow-reveal dynamic is at play here, on top of the obvious aquatic theme, only the hostility is there right from the start. When the surfer and his kid hit the beach with their boards, they encounter growling, menacing locals who keep repeating the mantra, “Don’t live here, don’t surf here.” Scally (Julian McMahon), the sinisterly smiley leader of the local gang who go by the juvenile name the Bay Boys, politely tells the surfer and his kid they have to leave as the surfing here is for locals only.

But there’s nothing stopping the surfer from hanging out in the parking lot up the cliff, an asphalt jungle with its own territorial, dog-eat-dog ecosystem. There, the surfer meets Fitz (Nic Cassim), also described as The Bum in the end credits. (Most of the characters are labelled “The [something]” there, even if named in the dialogue.) Bit by bit, the longer the surfer stays near the beach, the more he loses his possessions and starts to resemble bereaved father Fitz. First, the surfer’s board is stolen, then his cellphone, his watch and so on, obviously a little sanity draining away each time.

Like a grizzled gunslinger who usually rides alone (think, for instance, of the one he played in The Old Way recently), Cage is often cast as isolated men these days and works for long stretches onscreen alone. Hogging the spotlight, the way we love to watch him work, he goes to town with the surfer’s mental unzipping as the character becomes at odds not just with the Bay Boys but the heat, dehydration and hunger, and the local fauna themselves. At the risk of spoiling the film’s big and best gross-out scenes, look out for the rat. That all fits well with the Australian setting, a continent full of beauty but also more deadly snakes and spiders and elements hostile to humans than you can shake a stick at.

In the end, the film feels too rollicking and self-parodying to be taken seriously, but it strikes just the right tone to make it a fun Midnight movie for film festivals, which is exactly how it was programmed in Cannes. At least it looks great, with very on-point editing and another stylish visual collaboration between Finnegan and DP Radek Ladczuk, who shot Finnegan’s last Nocebo, also a mixed bag, as well as The Babadook.

Full credits

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Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julian McMahon, Nic Cassim, Miranda Tapsell, Alexander Bertrand, Justin Rosniak, Rahel Romahn, Finn Little, Charlotte Maggi
Production companies: North.Five.Six., Peach Tree Media Partners, Barreling Wave, Gramercy Park Media, Screenwest, Stan, Screen Australia, Screen Ireland, Saturn Films, Arenamedia, Lovely Productions, Tea Shop
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Thomas Martin
Producers: Leonora Darby, James Harris, Robert Connolly, James Grandison, Brunella Cocchiglia, Nicolas Cage, Nathan Klingher
Executive producers: Apur Parikh, Robert Patterson, Lorcan Finnegan, Mark Lane, Michael Rothstein, Samuel Hall, Ford Corbett, Mark Fasano, Ryan Winterstern, Joshua Harris, Greg Friedman, Jatin Desai, Cailah Scobie, Amanda Duthie, Francois Tetaz
Director of photography: Radek Ladczuk
Production designer: Emma Fletcher
Costume designer: Lien See Leong
Editor: Tony Cranstoun
Sound designer: Aza Hand
Music: Francois Tetaz
Casting: Jane Norris
Sales: WME Independent

1 hour 39 minutes

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