Nicolas Cage in a Post-Ironic Universe: On a Decade of Cagesploitation

Nicolas Cage is an actor forever associated in the popular imagination with his most outrageous scenes. In 2016’s Dog Eat Dog, for example, Cage sprays ketchup and mustard bottles on a shirtless Willem Dafoe. In 2018’s Between Worlds, his character reads from the book “Memories by Nicolas Cage” while he has dream-sex with the ghost of his dead wife, who possesses the body of his current girlfriend’s adult daughter. In 2019’s Grand Isle, when addressing the handyman that his bored, horny wife keeps hitting on, he poses the eternal question: “When was the last time you had your, uh, cock, um, sucked?”

Barring the legitimate acclaim of something like Mandy, these snapshots are mostly how we know the man who was born Nicolas Coppola — he puts out enough films per year (most, if not all, of them direct-to-video) that it’d be tough to keep up even if they weren’t generally panned. Especially over the last decade, popular culture has divided that work up into out-of-context scenes, disseminating them into memes and shouty video compilations.

I’ve watched all of these recent movies, and it’s true that Cage’s work does lend itself to such a piecemeal approach. It’s fun to hear about secondhand, and it’s often even preferable that way — a film like A Score to Settle is 103 minutes long, and there are a lot of other ways to spend nearly two hours of your life. Taken as a whole, however, there’s a deceptively coherent sensibility throughout Cage’s work. This arc manages, nearly thirty years after his screen debut, to bottle the spirit of the now, the combination of madness, endurance, and absurdity that embodies recent history. The 2010s, in other words, were the decade of Cagesploitation.

Dog Eat Dog
Dog Eat Dog (2016)

The Cage Crash of the 21st Century

“I genuinely am a private person who does not want his personal life exposed,” Cage says in a 2019 New York Times interview. “I wanted to have the mystery of the old stars, always preserved in an enigmatic aura.” He notes how difficult it is to cultivate that mystique these days, but through his role choices and his attempts to stay out of the spotlight, he has more or less succeeded. When we hear about him, it’s because he’s doing something unexpected, like starring in a Sion Sono picture, playing himself, or perhaps going through a very public series of financial problems.

Ever since he got into trouble with the IRS at the ends of the 2000s, the already-prolific actor has turned out films at a feverish pace. In 2011 alone, he starred in four movies. All of those saw theatrical release, but as his movie star stock began to plummet as a result of the increasingly dubious output, he turned to knocking out direct-to-video projects. In 2016, four of his five releases were DTV; the lone exception, Snowden, has him in a rare supporting role.

Putting aside whether or not Cage is still in actuality scrambling to cover his debts, this dynamic continues to impact our perception of him. What’s important is that he might still be struggling, or at least that he definitely was at some point and these movies are the result. Core to the initial appeal of the Cage decade is the promise of schadenfreude, our desire for this image of a rich guy brought low by more or less his own hand. Through his unknowable nature, the way we perceive Nicolas Cage the actor, essentially, is still as a character; he seems to be starring as Dan Aykroyd in his very own Trading Places, a well-off man kicked unceremoniously into the “real” world.

A Score to Settle
A Score to Settle (2019)

Maybe that doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s part of what ties him to the current zeitgeist — as it becomes increasingly clear that the wealthy are destroying the entire goddamn world, we need to get our fix of rich people suffering where we can. We keep our eyes open for opportune Twitter dunks, we gobble up stories of the wealthy being scammed by fake festivals and ambitious con artists. It may not fix anything, but it gets us through the day. Deep down, we crave to see rich, successful people brought low for misdeeds or missteps, and we have no illusions that Cage’s films this decade are anything but low. Neither does he, in fact; in multiple interviews, he acknowledges that the movies “may not entirely work,” that not all of them are “blue chip,” that “maybe there’s been more supply than demand.” 

With their forceful, violent titles, the films all sound pretty much interchangeable: Rage, Arsenal, Stolen, Seeking Justice, A Score to Settle, Kill Chain. His characters all have single-syllable first names and generally a two-syllable last name, because that’s what masculinity is in the world of direct-to-video; it’s strip clubs, it’s women in peril, it’s a white guy named Will Gerard, Paul Maguire, Mike Lawford, Mike Chandler, or Frank Carver. Not all of these movies even have Wikipedia pages.

It is easy to appreciate Cage’s latter-day career with a sense of bemused detachment. He has sex during a gunfight in Drive Angry. He smashes a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing the hokey pokey in Mom and Dad. He smears a prodigious glob of sunscreen all over his nose while going over heist details with Elijah Wood in The Trust. We stare, we point and we laugh. It’s schadenfreude as spectacle, dovetailing perfectly with the memeification of Nicolas Cage, whom we love but whose recent movies we certainly do not.

The Frozen Ground
The Frozen Ground (2013)

Coming Out of His Cage (And Doing Just Fine)

Stare long enough, though, and a funny thing happens. You begin to understand. You notice commonalities, whether in his cheap recent efforts or some of his older films people actually enjoy, like Wild at Heart, Face/Off, and Adaptation. There’s an inherent charisma to Cage, a magnetism to even his worst roles and at his most subdued. He’s always trying. Some of the problems in his recent movies stem from how he’s simply not in them enough. In Arsenal, he intermittently appears as the villain in a big fake nose, a wig, and a screechy voice, inexplicably reprising his role as Eddie King from 1993’s Deadfall. (Eddie King’s death in Deadfall is never brought up. It is not a prequel.) When he does appear, it’s strange, hilarious, and riveting. When he doesn’t, it’s… well, a direct-to-video action movie called Arsenal. Outcast, meanwhile, is predominantly a Hayden Christensen vehicle.

In a Reddit AMA, Ethan Hawke famously lauded Cage as the only actor since Marlon Brando to do anything new with the form, veering “away from an obsession with naturalism into a presentation style of acting.” Cage, for his part, has his own descriptions for what he does, from more general words like “operatic” to ostentatious terms like “western kabuki” and “nouveau shamanic.” 

Which isn’t to say he’s incapable of naturalism. He seems to get the itch to try it every so often, as in David Gordon Green’s Joe, in which he plays the burly head of a tree-cutting crew. In that film, his boiling rage is mostly in the eyes, as a man who has led a life of lashing out — only to, with the benefit of hindsight, realize where it’s gotten him. Joe demonstrates capacity for seething restraint, and for that, the performance is often called thoughtful in a way Cage rarely is anymore. 

Army of One
Army of One (2016)

But in some of the aforementioned interviews, Cage explains that even his most seemingly out-there choices are considered — he has explanations for when he screams “beef” in A Score to Settle, when he elongates “taaaaalk” in Rage. They’re weird explanations, but he has them. He cites inspiration in pieces of art like Edvard Munch’s The Scream or hokey advertisements. He points to long-ago actors like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, and you can see their echoes in his performances — there’s a lot of Cagney in those Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans interrogation rooms, an acknowledged bit of Bruce Lee in Mandy. The end of Dog Eat Dog is given over to his extended Bogart impression.

For Cage, the expressiveness is the point, the emphasis that there are methods beyond just the Method. It’s less that he cannot do naturalistic so much as that he’s uninterested in it, preferring to make unexpected choices that leave an unmistakable mark. You chuckle at this guy flying off the handle, at the memes and such that prove he’s doing so, until you realize how conscious he seems to be of what he’s doing. It’s not that Nicolas Cage lacks self-awareness; instead, he commits enough to each role that we no longer sense the self-awareness. We see, instead, the affinity for weird choices, from the entirety of his wondrously unhinged, greasy performance in Grand Isle to the surprising sadness he brings to A Score to Settle. Laughing at him morphs into laughing with him, or perhaps into being legitimately moved.

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Color Out of Space
Color Out of Space (2019)

Contextualizing Cage

In her 2015 book National Treasure (which is about Cage himself rather than the film of the same name), Lindsay Gibb writes, “Cage is a reminder that it’s okay to care, even if it makes you look ridiculous.” She captures the sort of odd revelation that comes from watching so many of these movies end-to-end; that they represent a coherent philosophy and style. The more you look, the more the ironic bemusement seems to melt away. Which isn’t to say all the movies are good, or that they should be appraised with total sincerity — The Humanity Bureau is an unvarnished snooze, while Pay the Ghost mostly works because of how funny it is to hear anyone say the phrase “pay the ghost.” But Cage himself is actually pretty successful at moderating his own tone — he’s strikingly subdued and empathetic for the grim true-life subject matter of The Frozen Ground, and he never flies off the handle in Vengeance: A Love Story.

You rarely get the sense that his outbursts derail an otherwise coherent movie. Rather, he’s either going with the flow or injecting weirdness into something that badly needs it. Cage has spoken of his initial frustration with the memes, saying in an Indiewire interview that many moments captured in the format are absent “the context of the character or how the character got there.” And he’s not exactly wrong. There is, for example, some significance to how the “beef” moment in A Score to Settle comes at the end, as the character has been through so much and more or less breaks down, fixating on the absolute silliness of the word. The context does matter.

You can see this best in Dying of the Light, a film notably taken away from writer/director Paul Schrader and recut without him. Cage plays a man suffering from a rapid form of dementia, and his erratic behavior plays strangely in the original cut, which seems focused on flattening the story into a more traditional thriller. Using DVDs of the workprint, Schrader had the film recut into something meant to approximate his original vision. Retitled Dark, the result fully recontextualizes Cage’s performance as a man losing all that’s left of himself, finding refuge only in state-sanctioned xenophobia. With rapid cuts and a more experimental style meant to replicate the character’s state of mind, his performance suddenly makes so much more sense in a film that now plays like a subversion rather than the traditionally palatable thriller it was made to indict in the first place.

Towards a Theory of Cagesploitation

Elsewhere, his scream-crying bathroom scene in Mandy settles into a groove of real anguish that informs the rest of the film, while his drunken shout of “cut into pieces!” in Kill Chain comes in the middle of a legitimately compelling monologue. Cage is capable of serving the material — it’s simply that, through sheer force of will, he often transfigures the material into Cage material, or he chooses projects and collaborators that already lend themselves to his own sensibilities and interests. He’s attracted to playing weirdos and working with fantastical concepts, like the 1300s plague drama Season of the Witch or Army of One, where his character has an imaginary sword fight with Osama Bin Laden. The Trust weaponizes audience expectations of a Cage character’s inherent strangeness to reveal that those quirks belie something much darker.

Likewise, many of Cage’s most memorable turns are with prior collaborators. There’s Schrader, who scripted Bringing Out the Dead and, to make up for the whole Dying of the Light fiasco, re-teamed with Cage on the anarchic black comedy Dog Eat Dog. Stolen pairs Cage again with director Simon West, who directed Con Air and supplies a similarly cheesy energy to what seems like a Taken knock-off only to reveal the film to be much, much weirder (the villain is a peg-legged taxi driver). Mom and Dad reunites him with Brian Taylor, who co-directed the earlier Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which devotes multiple scenes to Cage making absurd faces right into the camera while half-transformed into a skull.

A lot of what I’m describing is just the crux of movie stardom, the having of a certain something that turns you into a gripping screen presence that people seek out for specific reasons. But movie stardom these days is on the wane, with so many big-budget films turning toward IP-driven sales rather than establishing new screen presences. Through his choices, Cage leverages his own unpredictability into something of a loose genre: the Cagesploitation film, the thing that we will watch just to see what he does next.

Like any other “-sploitation” genre, it doesn’t always pan out — I’m not going to advise anyone to try out 211, USS Indianapolis, or even Primal. But through it all, Cage has constructed that most coveted of 2010s objects: a recognizable, actionable brand. Peppered with legitimate gems, his singularly iffy filmography constantly invites re-evaluation, through Mandy or through Joe or perhaps another film in the future, another urge to take a second, longer look and glimpse what he means to convey all along. Any prolonged analysis starts out draped in irony only to follow the decade’s trajectory into post-irony and post-post-post-irony, where the ironic appreciation turns genuine and then does a series of loops and backflips until no one can really tell anymore.

It’s not totally clear whether debts are still a huge concern for Cage. It’s been a decade, after all, and the guy has hardly slowed down. In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, he admits, “If I don’t have somewhere to go in the morning and a job to do, it can be very self-destructive. Then I’m just going to sit and order two bottles of red wine and dissolve, and I don’t want to be that person, so I have to work.” 

If Cage doesn’t enjoy the constant output, he has at least found something to strive for — challenging himself to get to big numbers. In the NYT piece, he looks up to his “golden age heroes” who made 150 films. He talks about the relationship the audience forms with an actor they watch often, and he has arguably achieved something similar by digging into his own disreputable niche. Casting off the shackles of a franchise-driven studio system, he becomes an unexpected avatar of populist weirdness, a post-ironic champion for a world that makes less sense with each passing tweet.

A Partial List of Essential Cagesploitation Films

  • Between Worlds
  • Dog Eat Dog
  • Drive Angry
  • Dying of the Light/Dark
  • Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
  • Grand Isle
  • Joe
  • Kill Chain
  • Mandy
  • Mom and Dad
  • Season of the Witch
  • Stolen
  • The Trust
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