Nicolas Cage seems to never not have a new movie coming out, but for every four or five of his paint-by-numbers suspense films you get a truly insane trip that requires the actor to unleash his inner fury — and he becomes the Rage Cage. Last year we got Mandy, the supersaturated rock opera in which Cage played a devastated man on a wild path to vengeance after his true love is murdered in front of him. And this year, we get the H. P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space, which takes the chaotic goodness of Mandy and raises it to chaotic evil. Former Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan perfectly summed up Cage’s performance abilities by saying, “Nicolas Cage doesn’t need to do cocaine to get lit. Cocaine ought to try Nicolas Cage.” So how does this Lovecraftian nightmare measure up on the Cage Rage Meter? Let’s discuss.
Color Out of Space, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and was acquired by RLJE Films, was adapted and directed by genre stalwart Richard Stanley. It tells the story of a family living in a gorgeous home surrounded by forest, miles away from the nearest town, whose lives turn to hell when a mysterious object plummets from the sky and lands in their front yard. The object sort of looks like a meteorite, but it glows brilliant colors and immediately starts affecting the flora and fauna around the Gardner household. It also starts affecting the Gardners themselves, a family of five (not counting their various alpacas). Soon after hitting ground, the space rock seemingly disappears, but its lingering presence continues to mutate the landscape and the people who live in it. Such a volatile and otherworldly setting is obviously a perfect playground for Cage to abandon all restraint.
Cage plays the patriarch, Nathan, who starts out in the film as a loving father and concerned husband to Teresa (Joely Richardson), a cancer survivor. But when the extraterrestrial visitation infects the groundwater, fast-tracking it into the bodies of everyone on the premises via the family well, Nathan and his loved ones change. Mom blithely chops off a few fingers while doing dinner prep. The daughter becomes violently ill. The youngest son starts communing with some sort of invisible presence in the yard. The alpacas act out. But Nathan’s reactions are more violent, more unpredictable, leading to significant spikes in the Cage Rage meter, which, for the purposes of this analysis, we will illustrate in terms of how chaotic it would be to live the particular role while trapped in a literal cage.
Now, this isn’t the nihilism of Castor Troy, which measures on the meter at “sealed in a box filled with bees,” or the righteous anger of Mandy, which has you in the same box but bombarded by deafening speed metal. This is Cage going full bitch, adopting a different verbal affect and dressing down his wife and kids with savage insults like a schoolyard bully before temporarily snapping back to normal (mostly). Fortunately, Stanley opts to lean into the absurdity of the Cage freakouts, daring you to laugh at this increasingly threatening man as he goes on tirades about locking up the alpacas, appears as a disheveled town loon in a local news broadcast, and eventually surrenders to full-tilt Cage in a scene involving heirloom tomatoes.
Formerly reluctant to leave the city for the wilderness, Nathan has a newfound commitment to the rural life that involves paying obsessive attention to his small livestock collection and his garden, which we see as he strolls through rows of plants, picking glorious-looking produce off the vines. Nathan is so proud of what he’s accomplished with his green thumb — and with the help of the alien energy juicing up his harvest — that his disappointment at the food’s flavorlessness hits him like a train when he gets back into the kitchen with his bounty. Imagine the most potent vendetta you could have against a living person; now imagine that vendetta being directed at a basket of tomatoes. What follows can only be described as the indiscriminate slaughter of fruit, during which Cage means to rip the heart out of each tomato with his teeth. The disemboweling complete, he begins rabidly spiking each one into the trash — all while having a fight with his wife about the Wi-Fi.
That isn’t Cage’s only breakdown in the film, but it is his most outlandish. Stanley actually gave the actor room to ad-lib meltdowns where he felt they were called for in the script, and despite the tomato murders and a savage attack on the family sedan and so on, apparently only about 50 percent of Cage’s off-script flip-outs made it to the final cut. “Nic was always looking for room to improvise in the script,” the director told the audience during a Q&A at Beyond Fest 2019 in Los Angeles. “He marked out certain areas where we knew we were going to let him off the leash a little.” According to Stanley, Cage pulled from an old tool kit to perfect the performance: “The last time he had really gone there was Vampire’s Kiss.”
If you need a refresher, Kiss is the foundational crazed Cage role, the performance by which all other crazy Cages are measured — in other words, you’re back in your sealed Cage cage, but this time there are 23 flash grenades exploding all around you. As the literary agent Peter Loew, who emotionally terrorizes his assistant and recites the angriest version of the alphabet ever committed to screen, he combined the fury and absurdity and sadness and physical insanity that would inform rage breaks throughout his career but didn’t necessarily come together as a full package. Space isn’t the marathon of mania that Kiss was — that kind of strain is really a young man’s game — but 31 years later, this most pure form of paternally inspired Cage Rage has been unchained again.
In the end, I’d say Color Out of Space doesn’t quite reach “trapped in a coffin filled with detonating nonlethal ordnance” levels on the Cage Rage meter, but it does top “confined in the dark while the Annihilation bear with the human scream circles you like prey.” Which is to say, if a glowing space rock lands in your yard, move immediately, but if the crazy call is coming from inside the house — more specifically from an unhinged Nicolas Cage — call the National Guard, a hazmat team, and a priest. You’re going to need all the help you can get.