In The Surfer, an exploitation film set to pressure-cook, a mild-mannered man is pitted against a group who even Andrew Tate might find a touch extreme. It’s set in South Australia on fictional Luna Bay, the kind of place where if the heat doesn’t get you, something else probably will. The water shines turquoise-blue but the beaches look like scorched earth. Into this furnace arrives an unnamed man (Nicolas Cage) hoping for nothing more than to view a cliffside property and catch a wave, but the locals have other ideas: “Don’t live here, don’t surf here,” one says, offering about as much hospitality as a switchblade.

The director of this entertaining potboiler is Lorcan Finnegan, an Irish filmmaker who seems acutely aware of the hand he’s holding here: one of the very best things about The Surfer is how alive it is to Cage’s image, what audiences tend to expect from him, and how it plays with those assumptions. Crucially, Finnegan knows the actor’s pyrotechnics are best savored only when gradually teased––credit to him for showing such restraint. For a while The Surfer inches at a diabolically patient pace: he is poked and prodded as we wait for him to snap, because that’s just what Nic Cage characters do. When it happens in Finnegan’s film, as it did in Mandy, the fireworks border on hallucinogenic.

The story is drawn from a great tradition of unwelcome out-of-towners: it’s not quite The Wicker Man (Nic’s Version) and not quite Dead Man’s Shoes (although similarly, the Cage character is returning to the place he grew up). The chief tormentor is Scally (Julian McMahon), a toxic masculinity guru who wears his hooded beach towel like the robe of a cult leader and whose pack of followers are quick to carry out his bidding. These micro and macro aggressions range from cutting off our hero’s access to drinking water to making him question his very identity. Waiting in a carpark (where most of the action is set) for a call from his estate agent, he is quickly relieved of his shoes, phone, car, and dignity, but remains too stubborn to let the bullies drive him out of a place he still thinks of as home. Eventually, after blowing a few fuses, Cage’s antihero decides to take a stand.

Since the 2016 release of Without Name, Finnegan has quietly made a name for himself in a string of genre films––Vivarium (starring Jesse Eisenberg) and Nocebo followed––that each used location and atmosphere to suggest a character’s unraveling mind. The Surfer doesn’t buck the trend, but its colors and playfulness suggest a change of course. Tweaked to the vogueish orange and teal hues of Asteroid City, the images are there to remind you of the stifling temperature but give the production a playful ‘70s sheen. The lovely, wavy opening titles come in the chunky font of a grindhouse movie. Nodding to surf rock and psychedelia, François Tétaz’s score takes cues from a similar era. Despite contemporary themes and setting, it all fits together.

The Surfer made its first waves at a perfectly programmed midnight premiere, where a game Cannes audience whooped and hollered at every one of the actor’s lingering close-ups, outlandish gestures, and finely calibrated line-reads. This is a film that knows what it’s doing and does it very well.

The Surfer premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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