Review: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (2023), starring Nicolas Cage and Joel Kinnaman

August 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage and Joel Kinnaman in “Sympathy for the Devil” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Sympathy for the Devil” (2023)

Directed by Yuval Adler

Culture Representation: Taking place in Nevada, the dark dramedy film “Sympathy for the Devil” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A factory worker gets kidnapped by a mysterious and angry stranger, who goes on a killing spree during the abduction.

Culture Audience: “Sympathy for the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and low-budget, offbeat thrillers that don’t try to pretend to be masterpieces.

Nicolas Cage in “Sympathy for the Devil” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Sympathy for the Devil” is an intentionally dark and violent dramedy/satire that showcases Nicolas Cage’s penchant for playing weird and unhinged characters. Viewers should not expect a fully serious drama. The movie brings some laughs with the suspense.

Directed by Yuval Adler and written by Luke Paradise, “Sympathy for the Devil” has more to the story than just kidnapping and a murder spree. It’s also more than just a 90-minute film of Cage playing yet another bizarre and troubled soul. What will keep viewers interested is finding out why this kidnapping occurred in the first place. “Sympathy for the Devil” takes place over the course of one night, as a “real time” story.

For the most part, “Sympathy for the Devil” (which was filmed on location in Nevada) focuses on just two characters: The kidnapper and the kidnapping victim. The movie begins by showing a factory worker in his 40s named David Chamberlain (played by Joel Kinnaman) driving his son (played by Oliver McCallum) to the house of the son’s grandmother (played by Nancy Good), before David drives to the hospital where his wife Maggie is giving birth. David and Maggie have gone through heartbreak over their family: In the past, she was pregnant with a boy, but the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Maggie calls David on the phone more than once during the course of the story.

Just as David arrives in the hospital’s parking garage, a stranger (who has red hair that’s the same shade as a fire engine) gets in David’s car with a gun and orders David to “pick a card,” as in to name any type of playing card. The stranger (played by Cage) has no name in the movie. He’s only called The Passenger in the movie’s end credits, so that’s how he’ll be identified in this review. David thinks it’s a robbery and tells The Passenger to take anything he wants, but The Passenger replies, “I didn’t say I was robbing you. I said, ‘Pick a card.””

David choose the spade. The Passenger smirks, “I knew you were going to pick that card.” David is in shock, but he enough of his wits about him to ask this stranger to let David go, because David’s wife is about to give birth. The Passenger is unmoved. “It’s a family emergency,” David pleads when requesting to be let go so he can be with his wife. The Passenger snarls with a creepy grin on his face: “I’m your family emergency now.”

Because this is a Cage movie, expect to see his villain character act completely unpredictable and off the rails. Viewers already can tell from the beginning that this kidnapper is going to commit murder. “Sympathy for the Devil” doesn’t hold back on how bizarre The Passenger gets in his monologue rants and loose cannon antics. Some of it is hilarious—not the heinous murders, but the things that The Passenger says and does when he’s not killing someone.

Most of “Sympathy for the Devil” is about The Passenger ordering David to go to certain places. First, he tells David to go to Boulder City. On the drive there, The Passenger asks David where his hometown is, and David says he’s originally from Tucson, Arizona. The Passenger says he’s originally from Boston and asks David if he’s ever been to Boston. David said he was there only once, briefly, during a visit years ago.

The Passenger then tells David that his mother has lung cancer. Hoping to find a way to bond with this kidnapper, David tells his own story about his mother. David says his mother was religious but his father was an abusive drunk. The Passenger scoffs, “That plea for sympathy is beneath you.”

During this increasingly demented kidnapping, David and The Passenger encounter some more people, but the number of people in this movie’s cast is relatively small. The Passenger is very confrontational with almost everyone who has the misfortune of talking to him. He also loses his temper easily.

While driving on the road, David sees a patrol officer (played by Cameron Lee Price) parked in a car, waiting to catch speeders. David deliberately goes over the speed limit and gets pulled over by the cop for speeding. The Passenger is very argumentative with the cop. You can imagine what happens next.

The Passenger also mentions the word “devil” or “Satan” in some of his rants. There might be moments in the movie where viewers could wonder if “Sympathy for the Devil” is a supernatural story, but it’s not. The Passenger is a human being, not Satan or an evil spirit. There’s also no “it was all just a nightmare” part of the story either.

Things start to get really insane when David and The Passenger go inside a nearly deserted diner. For a while, the only people in the diner are David, The Passenger, a trucker customer (played by Rich Hopkins), a waitress (played by Alexis Zollicoffer) and the diner’s owner/cook (played by Burns Burns). The diner has a jukebox. At one point, The Passenger activates the jukebox, which plays Alicia Bridges’ 1978 hit “I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round).” The Passenger sings along to the song in one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Does David try to escape? Of course, he does. But there would be no “Sympathy for the Devil” movie if escaping were easy for David. For most of this ordeal, David (and viewers) will be thinking about The Passenger: “Who is this sadistic degenerate? What does he want from David? Why is this kidnapping even taking place?” The motive for this kidnapping unfolds in layers.

Kinnaman’s portrayal of David doesn’t go beyond “terrified victim” until a certain point in the movie when David shows he’s a lot more cunning than he first appears to be. Coincidence or not, in the 2020 movie “The Secrets We Keep” (which Adler directed and co-wrote), Kinnaman played another factory employee kidnapped by someone who seems to know a lot about the kidnapped character. Cage is doing what Cage likes to do in these types of films: ham it up in a way that’s intended to make people laugh. Some people might find this style of acting to be very annoying, but in the context of how strange The Passenger is, it actually works well enough for this movie.

“Sympathy for the Devil” is very gritty and grungy, but there’s also a level of comedy and sly commentary on how people make judgments based on outward appearances. The movie does a very good job of maintaining viewer curiosity to find out why The Passenger targeted David for this kidnapping. When motives and secrets are revealed, they will make viewers question their opinions of what they saw previously in the story. And that’s why “Sympathy for the Devil” is slightly better than the average “killing spree” movie.

RLJE Films released “Sympathy for the Devil” in select U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023.

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