D (Joel Kinnaman) is never late. For anything. He couldn’t let someone down even if he tried. So there’s no reason to worry when he learns his wife has gone into labor. At least nothing beyond the knowledge he’ll be as anxious about not being around to supervise things at work, since he’s soon becoming a dad again. All he must do is follow the checklist.

Grab the bag. Drop off their son at his mother-in-law’s house. Call into the office one last time to ensure everything is under control. And arrive at the hospital with time to spare. Maybe he’ll hit traffic. Maybe she’ll be induced due to the complications that led to them losing their first child. Maybe a strange man in red (Nicolas Cage) will jump into the backseat of his car the second he parks, gun drawn and demanding D put it back into drive. The night has just begun.

It’s a fascinating start to director Yuval Adler and writer Luke Paradise’s Sympathy for the Devil. One that gets your mind racing as to whether this hijacking is a sick twist of karmic fate, straight-up unexplainable coincidence, or something more supernatural. Because the title and Cage’s garb demands we at least consider the possibility he’s Satan.

Why not? We learn about D having already lost a child––who’s to say he won’t lose another? Or that the Devil wouldn’t ascend from the depths of Hell to offer him a deal: one soul for another? It’s feasible. And the lack of any context for a good third of its runtime does cause things to lean that way, dialogue implying he knows things about D which he shouldn’t. Thus it’s not wrong to get excited when a cop pulls them over. What will Cage’s “Passenger” do in response? Will he tip his hand?

Regardless of who this unnamed character is in the context of Biblical metaphor or premeditated vengeance once stories about a bookie being hunted down by his former crime boss are revealed, he’s a loose cannon of an antagonistic force in D’s life right now. And Cage is having the time of his life playing the role––flippant, unhinged, oozing the confidence of a man with nothing to lose. He doesn’t care that D is about to be a father again or that there’s a real possibility something tragic might happen at the hospital. He simply cracks wise when the phone rings, mocking the stakes he’s exacerbated for laughs.

However, as a victim held at gunpoint, one cannot deny just how calm Kinnaman’s driver proves. Is it the adrenaline? Is it evidence he’s keeping a secret? It’s tough to tell––D is constantly trying to escape while Cage is constantly letting him, if only as an excuse to show how serious his threats truly are.

Whether in the car driving or forced to confront an unwitting supporting cast that ultimately become pawns to the game of chicken Cage is playing, it’s all about his smile and Kinnaman’s distress. Will D make things worse by attempting to disarm his captor? Will Cage’s “Passenger” eventually fly off the handle too far for his own good?

The film deals in these extremes in a way that demands we pay close attention to everything they both say and do to be certain we notice the nuance in every action onscreen. Because Cage is intentionally trying to catch D in a lie. And D is determined to make him believe he has no idea why anyone would think he’s someone who could earn a gangster’s attention. Perhaps Cage is delusional and grasping at straws. He obviously has a few screws loose. But what if D is over-compensating? Is there a façade to be broken?

So prepare for twists and turns as both characters get pushed to the edge of their desire to never compromise. Intentionally built to conjure preconceptions that will subsequently get flipped, the script might even have you discovering the victim and perpetrator somehow switched places. It shouldn’t necessarily change who you root for as much as force you to confront reality: we’re all capable of heinous acts when our backs are against the wall with love on the line.

That’s the desperation Cage and Kinnaman exude in every scene. Someone as unstable as the former must maintain a modicum of sympathy to stop from becoming a cartoon––just as we must believe the latter is as believable as a bad man cosplaying a saint as he is a genuine hero. In the end they’re each a broken man trying to survive––outrageous theatrics notwithstanding. After all, who are God and the Devil beyond figures we created to pretend the world’s horrors make sense?

Sympathy for the Devil opens in limited release on July 28.

Grade: B

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