Dying Of The Light director Paul Schrader doesn’t want you to see Dying Of The Light. Nor for that matter does its star Nicolas Cage or executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn. Because they believe that the producers of the film have re-edited it to be something they never intended, that the very soul of the film has been ripped from it in the name of commercialism. It’s a damming indictment of a film when the key people involved refute its current existence. So does Dying Of The Light burn bright or fizzle out?
Evan Lake – a typically over the top Cage in a role originally slated for Harrison Ford – is a CIA agent who 22 years ago was tortured by terrorist Banir (Alexander Karim) before being extracted and his captor supposedly killed. Now he’s a veteran, a desk-jockey for the agency who is wheeled out to inspire the new generation. When Evan is diagnosed with dementia he realises his CIA days are numbered just as his colleague Milton (Anton Yelchin) uncovers evidence that suggests Banir is alive but dying of a rare blood disease.
Somewhere within Dying Of The Light is an interesting idea, the kernel of a concept that could have potentially led to a smart little character thriller to keep the mind occupied. But watching the film as it is now it’s unlikely that idea would have existed even in Schrader’s original cut. Because unless scenes were shot extensively without Schrader’s knowing the film fails to create suspense in so many areas that a modern audience might expect.
If you diagnose your protagonist with a disease that can alter his perception and memory then you have to play on it. Here that idea could have been exploited had it been left ambiguous if Banir is alive or whether Lake’s obsession and failing mental capacity is conjuring him. Alas this doubt is never even touched upon in the film, instead it’s made very clear from the outset that Banir is alive and well, in fact he’s the sub-plot to the film, his disease and waning health drawing parallels with Lake’s.
So Dying Of The Light plays out like a Tom Clancy novel, a fairly formulaic thriller that looks low budget and never offers the twists you’d hope for. Yes, there are implications there is more afoot, that perhaps the CIA knew of Banir being alive but kept it quiet to use him as an asset, or perhaps Milton has been sent on the mission not as Lake’s friend but as a mole to report back to Langley. But none of this comes to pass, instead it’s just an old agent losing his mind trying to take revenge against the man who made him suffer. A solid revenge thriller it could have been, Only God Forgives and Drive demonstrates that’s Winding Refn’s wheelhouse, but it barely even cuts that muster.
Speculate as to what Schrader originally intended the film to be but as it is Dying Of The Light fades quicker than a blackout.