Sympathy for the Devil

In recent years, Nicolas Cage has chosen a lot of projects that allow him to indulge in unapologetically over-the-top performances. Sometimes that works, as in Renfield. Other times, not so much. (Remember the insipid Primal? If not, don’t feel bad.) Cage's latest, the thriller Sympathy for the Devil, gives him free rein to go as wild as he wants. And, boy, does he ever. The nature of the material fits with his unconventional style.

There are no formal character names here, but Joel Kinnaman plays the Driver, a seemingly ordinary guy trying to get to the hospital where his wife is having a baby. His trip is derailed by the Passenger (Cage), a guy with bright red hair to match his suit. The Passenger forces the Driver to transport him to an undisclosed location. Several bloody encounters follow as the Driver attempts to escape and as other people enter their proximity.

A second layer of tension comes from wondering who the Driver really is. The Passenger believes him to be a bad man wanted by even worse men. The Driver insists it's a case of mistaken identity. That creates a scenario where we side with the Driver while simultaneously wondering if we should. Interestingly, the movie reteams Kinnaman with director Yuval Adler. They made 2020’s excellent, criminally underseen The Secrets We Keep, in which the actor is also cast as a man who may be hiding his true identity.

The first half of Sympathy for the Devil consists largely of the men in the car. The Passenger plays mind games with the Driver. With his flaming red hair and suit, an implication exists that he might be the actual devil. That’s a fun angle, although the movie never explicitly comes down on one side or the other. The second half takes place at a diner where the scope of the Passenger’s evil becomes most apparent. Cage hams it up, making deranged faces and dancing to Alicia Bridges’ 1978 hit “I Love the Nightlife.” Outrageous, yes, but the actor infuses his performance with a perpetual air of danger, and Adler shoots the picture to have an edgy atmosphere, so his star’s choices are accentuated.

Perhaps the most alluring aspect of the film is a revelation made by the Passenger late in the game. You actually do feel a twinge of sympathy for this “devil,” despite the horrific behaviors he carries out. The point is that even the most despicable human beings can carry around personal pain. In fact, pain can be the factor that fuels their malice. I wish the movie explored the notion more intently to give the interplay between the leads extra juice. At least it’s here as an undercurrent.

Sympathy for the Devil is not a deep film. It exists as an exercise in style, violence, and offbeat characterization. Taken at that level, enough entertainment can be found to make the 90-minute running time breeze by. Nicolas Cage is in full creative mode, and his energy holds a thin plot together.

out of four

Sympathy for the Devil is unrated, but contains strong language and bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.