Producers: Allan Ungar, Alex Lebovici, David Haring, Stuart Manashil, Marc Goldberg and Nicolas Cage Director: Yuval Adler Screenplay: Luke Paradise Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joel Kinnaman, Alexis Zollicoffer, Cameron Lee Price, Oliver McCallum, Burns, Rick Hopkins, Nancy Good and Kaiwi Lyman- Mersereau Distributor: RLJE Films
If you enjoy seeing Nicolas Cage in full bonkers mode, rather than actually acting (e.g., “Pig”), this efficient but dead-end road-movie thriller is for you. It’s one of those pictures in which the credits list the characters by category (“The Passenger,” “The Driver”) rather than name—although some monikers are bandied about. That sense of anonymity, unfortunately, extends to the shopworn script by newcomer Luke Paradise, and also to the direction by Yuval Adler, the promise of whose debut, “Bethlehem” (2014), hasn’t been realized in his subsequent films.
In essence this is a two-character piece in which a few other poor souls have the misfortune of encountering the principals, usually to disastrous effect. Joel Kinnaman plays The Driver, calling himself David Chamberlain, who drops his son (Oliver McCallum) off at grandma’s before heading off to a Las Vegas hospital where his wife has gone into labor. While blocked by other cars in the parking garage, he’s accosted by The Passenger (Cage), who climbs into the back seat, points a gun to his head, and orders him to pull into traffic despite his protestations that he has a family emergency. The Passenger, with reddish hair and a Luciferian air about him, doesn’t care.
The Passenger orders his hapless captive to drive to Boulder City, where, he claims, his mother is dying of cancer. But gradually his real purpose is revealed. He believes The Driver has merely assumed the name of Chamberlain and started life anew in Nevada. He thinks the man he’s carjacked is an enemy from his past from whom he wants to extract revenge—a bookkeeper who absconded with a South Boston crime lord’s funds, leaving The Passenger and his wife to bear the brunt of his anger. The Driver protests that he’s the wrong man.
Along the way there are stops that are more or less suspenseful. At a gas station, a female customer looks on them suspiciously before departing just in time. A cop (Cameron Lee Price) pulls tem over for speeding, leading The Passenger to argue vociferously with the lawman before leaving him lying in the road. (The Passenger contends they were just keeping up with traffic, though there appears to be no other cars on the road for miles.)
But the most extended, and violent, stop is at a diner, where The Passenger is infuriated with the “No Substitutions” notice on the menu. It leads to some rough treatment for The Waitress (Alexis Zollicoffer) who tries to keep things calm, but even rougher treatment for The Trucker (Rich Hopkins) sipping coffee at the counter and the scruffy cook (Burns, who’s also the production designer) manning the kitchen. (Fortunately the mother and daughter who cower in a booth appear to escape unscathed, though the diner itself doesn’t.)
Ultimately we learn the truth behind The Passenger’s suspicions and The Driver’s past. Or do we? At least we get a flamboyant finale.
Kinnaman is okay as the helpless Chamberlain, but what gives the movie whatever energy it possesses is Cage. The Passenger, alternating between manic rages and meditative reminiscences (the oddest being musings about his perpetually stuffed sinuses and an imaginary figure he calls The Mucous Man), is another of the actor’s gonzo rides on the wild side, and as such it should satisfy those who revel in his over-the-top histrionics. But the best of his wacko work comes in pictures where the character he’s playing has something going on under the scenery-chewing surface. Here The Passenger really doesn’t, even after a failed attempt to humanize him toward the close. As a result “Sympathy for the Devil” is far less creepily effective than the original version of “The Hitcher,” in which Rutger Hauer’s quiet malevolence was genuinely scary and the predicament of C. Thomas Howell’s callow driver carried a sense of existential dread missing here.
The result is pretty much an empty genre exercise, though competently carried out by Adler and his crew. Though Burns’s production design is strictly functional, cinematographer Steven Holleran gives the nighttime images a sense of hazy menace, and Ishai Adar’s score is appropriately spare, with some song interpolations—one sung by Cage for oddball effect—well chosen. Editor Alan Conant gives Cage plenty of room to do his thing. Without Cage, “Sympathy for the Devil” would have run out of gas by the hallway point. With him, it almost sustains itself to its less-than-shocking destination. Whether it’s worth going along for the ride is another question.