Dream Scenario (4 / 5)
Butcher’s Crossing (3 / 5)
The Retirement Plan (2 / 5)
Only three of the six Nicolas Cage films released this year, not counting his cameo in The Flash, Dream Scenario, Butcher’s Crossing, and The Retirement Plan showcase the variety and inconsistency of his output.
In A24-produced comedy Dream Scenario, Nicolas Cage plays Paul Matthews, a middle-aged college professor described as a “remarkable nobody”. Balding, beardy, and soft-spoken, Paul becomes a cause célèbre when, in a bizarre phenomenon, he starts appearing in the dreams of untold strangers around the world. But what happens when humanity’s collective unconsciousness casts him as the villain?
The second film of Sick of Myself‘s Kristoffer Borgli, Dream Scenario taps into the same well of neurotic anxiety as Ari Aster, who here acts as producer. Matthews is a passive figure in his own life; a self-amused, deeply insecure nebbish, Cage’s performance imbues him with a grating quality. You can simultaneously appreciate Paul as largely a victim of circumstance, but also get the sense, perversely, that he’s brought this on himself.
Viral marketer Trent (Michael Cera) may describe Paul, self-servingly but not inaccurately, as, for the moment, “the most interesting person in the world”, but we know this can only end in humiliation. The film contains one of the most nightmarishly awkward scenes of any film this year; suspending the audience somewhere between laughter and horror as we’re forced to engage with the reality of Paul’s inadequacy.
Part tragicomic character study, part critique of cancel culture, Dream Scenario blends the mundane and the odd to novel effect. As Paul’s wife Janet, Julianne Nicholson provides a neat counterpoint to Paul’s gentle, unassuming egotism. Dylan Baker is memorable in a small role as a dry, gently judgmental colleague of Paul’s. An element of corporate satire in the film’s final act doesn’t quite fit, but for Cage fans this is not to be missed.
Nicolas Cage’s second Western this year is only the second in his career. Butcher’s Crossing may be, if anything, more traditional than the one that preceded it, Brett Donowho’s The Old Way, but it benefits from the grand sweep of its source material.
Based on the 1960 novel by John Edward Williams, Butcher’s Crossing follows Will (Fred Hechinger), a beardy, fresh-faced early-twenty-something who abandons a degree at Harvard to head out west to the titular frontier town of Butcher’s Crossing. As he relates in letter to his unseen father, Will is looking for meaning and purpose. He finds the promise of it in the booming buffalo hide trade.
Venturing into the American wilderness in search of his fortune, Will is accompanied by the taciturn Miller (Cage), one-armed drunk and god-botherer Hoge (Xander Berkeley, unrecognisable with shaggy white hair and beard), and skinner/wind-up merchant Schneider (Jeremy Bomb) on what is meant to be a three-week endeavour. A title card reading ‘FALL’ is an omen that everything may not go according to plan.
I’d contend that Cage looks out of place in a naturalistic period piece. There’s something inherently ironic and modern-seeming about his presence. He might not quite have “smartphone face”, but he definitely looks like someone who’s seen a widescreen TV. In Butcher’s Crossing, Cage makes a strength of this. His very presence is, to some degree, incongruous – why not use that?
Cage, bald, bearded, and smoking a pipe, spins yarns of oceans of buffalo in a pass cut off from the rest of the world. He’s Colonel Kurtz, constantly running a straight razor over his scalp, and Captain Ahab, obsessively in search of that once-in-a-lifetime hunt; a thwarted man of destiny whose obsession will plunge the party into a Treasure of the Sierra Madre-style quest of desperation and greed.
The buffalo hide trade is an occupation premised on slaughter. Will’s Spinozan revelation that God is in nature is complicated somewhat by the fact that he must then kill it. Butcher’s Crossing was shot in the Blackfeet Nation, Montana, with the buffalo being handled by their conservation program. That they continue to endure, albeit in much reduced numbers,
Fate is fickle, nature is both cruel and vulnerable, and Butcher’s Crossing is available to watch now on Prime Video.
The Retirement Plan is a crime comedy caper whose top-tier cast and occasional flash of originality compensates somewhat for the overwhelming familiarity of all the elements.
Ashley (Ashley Green) is on the run with a USB stick full of secrets and the mob hot on her trail. With nowhere else to turn, Ashley sends her young daughter Sarah (Thalia Campbell) to the Cayman Islands to stay with Matt (Nicolas Cage), Sarah’s long-estranged father.
Cage is miscast as a seventy-year-old beach bum – the Hawaiian shirt is as unconvincing a bit of characterization as the grey wig. Unable to bring his trademark intensity to bear, his performance initially relies on being agreeable, if inscrutable, as we wait for the plot to kick in.
When an old fishing buddy (Ernie Hudson) speaks of Matt’s ability, during his career as an “arbitrator”, to slip in anywhere unnoticed, it just doesn’t ring true. The role needs someone more normal, an Ed Asner-type, whose sudden physical prowess would genuinely be unexpected and comical.
Similarly, Jackie Earle Hailey – or Jackie Eaarle Haley if you pay attention to the opening credits – is on autopilot as generic mob boss Donnie, raging around his suite in sunglasses and a kimono. Ron Pearlman fares slightly better as Bobo, a suave, mumbling button man with a love of literature.
The plot, such as it is, is a grab-bag of beats from different genres: generation-gap dramedy; one-last-mission geri-actioner; even a CIA thriller as agents Drisdale (Lynn Whitfield) and Fitzsimmons (Joel David Moore) try to bring down the even bigger baddie (Grace Byers).
The overall vibe is distinctly sub-Tarantino: henchmen argue about the difference between a disc and a hard-drive; failing to realise, as writer-director Tim Brown seems to, that it’s actually a USB stick. There’s also a recurring gag set at passport control lifted straight from Snatch.
Even by Cage’s not always discerning standards The Retirement Plan seems half-baked, but there’s a handful of memorable moments. For instance, one in which Matt mimics the convulsions of the guy whose throat he’s just chopped, presumably a cruelly funny bit of Cage improv.
Of all the Cage flicks I’ve seen this year, The Retirement Party is certainly the most disposable – one, perhaps, for completists only, but still, there’s some value in watching a not-so-old dog perform some not-so-new tricks.
The Retirement Plan is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 20th November, 2023, courtesy of Signature Entertainment