About a half-decade ago, Nicolas Cage owned the video-on-demand circuit, with crap like Running with the Devil, 211, Primal, Dog Eat Dog, Looking Glass and Between Worlds. Sprinkled among those duds were minor genre hits like Color Out of Space, Mandy and Mom and Dad. This was the era of his career where going “big” really became his trademark and audiences grew to expect grandiosity from him — even when the films didn’t necessarily warrant it. He finally broke out of that career phase with some big-time art work — particularly Pig, a movie that earned accolades thanks to his much more reserved character work. I think many hoped that would be a return to something for the actor — maybe just material that warranted something different.
Alas, that hasn’t really been the case, and Sympathy for the Devil feels right at home with the actor’s other VOD-era work. It’s a simple genre story, told countless times, about an average man taken hostage by a mysterious, gun-toting stranger, commencing an unanticipated voyage into death and darkness. In this case, it’s David Chamberlain (Joel Kinnaman), a regular joe driving to the birth of his newest child. He ends up captive of the Passenger (Cage), a madman with a pistol, anger issues and a poorly concealed Bostonian accent. The Passenger orders David where to drive and warns him not to slow down for anyone or speed too fast. No need for police attention. The Passenger also threatens David’s family, should David try to crash the car or escape in any other fashion.
It’s a bad situation for David, just a regular joe trying to see his wife. Or so he says.
The issue at the heart of Devil is that it’s a two-character drama that follows the common beats of this type of story so faithfully that the larger mystery pays out pretty much exactly as you’d expect it to, which puts the onus on the journey of David and the Passenger to be captivating enough to make the film click. Frankly, Cage’s bit energy quickly gets tiresome. Kinnaman’s low-key anger is well-played, but this isn’t a case of opposites attract. The Passenger is bossy, angry and violent — tricks that swiftly become repetitive when one of the men is clearly hiding something and the story steadfastly refuses to develop their relationship until the very last act.
What begins as a promising story of two mismatched men manipulating each other becomes a frustrating drag, one that feels hard to recommend to just about anyone.