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2021 was an even wilder year than usual for Nicolas Cage

His 2021 films are extremely different, but they all showcase an increasingly specific acting style aimed right at his fans

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Louder, quieter, quietest: That’s the volume range on Nicolas Cage’s 2021, though he doesn’t turn the dial in that order. First came Kevin Lewis’ Willy’s Wonderland, then Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, and finally, Cage brought the year home in Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland. Of the three, Ghostland reads closest to what’s typically considered a Cage film — the kind where logic and reality depart to make way for kooky brio, and any attempts at making sense of what’s happening onscreen are summarily dismissed with a hearty “Whatever. Shut up! Soak in the weirdness! You’ll like it!”

Cage certainly grabs the audience’s attention in Prisoners of the Ghostland. He’s been working toward perfecting this wild performance style for years now, hitting his peak with Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 dream-horror masterpiece Mandy, where he takes up a hand-forged battleaxe and a crossbow to fight off hippie cultists and their demonic S&M numens. It’s a waking nightmare made of gore, suffering, and hallucinatory slow-mo, soundtracked by Cage’s inchoate howls of rage and grief over his lost love Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).

That’s the spirit he brings to Prisoners of the Ghostland, the most Mandy of his 2021 roles. But Willy’s Wonderland and Pig show the same commitment to the defining awareness of his acting style. Cage is a conscious actor, but he’s never self-conscious — he builds his performances on a foundation of deliberate choices, even if those choices come across as outlandish at first blush. No matter the film or the role, he arrives at every decision he makes on screen for a reason.

Nicolas Cage, strapped down and looking worried in Prisoners of the Ghostland Photo: AMC Plus/Shudder

For Sono, Cage plays a lone anti-hero, referred to with tongue in cheek as Hero. An incarcerated bank robber doing time in a post-apocalyptic burg called Samurai Town, Hero is sent on a mission by Samurai Town’s lecherous Governor (Bill Moseley) to brave the irradiated Ghostlands outside the town limits and retrieve Bernice (Sofia Boutella), supposedly his wayward granddaughter. (She isn’t.) There’s a catch. The Governor hooks Hero up with a bodysuit rigged with explosives set to blow if he mishandles Bernice, if he tries to take the suit off, or if he fails the task. So it goes.

Anton Chekhov can’t abide a rifle left on a gun rack, so of course Chekhov’s bodysuit detonates at regular intervals. In the first instance, one of the bombs comically demolishes Hero’s crotch. Hero isn’t pleased. “Impossible? Ha!” he roars in a rousing climatic speech to the Ghostland’s citizens, inciting them to fight the Governor’s pervy tyranny. “If you had told me three days ago that I’d be standing here with one arm and one testicle, trying to reason with you bitches, I would have said ‘impossible,’ too.” Cage chooses his moments wisely, stretching out his enunciation of “testicle” from three syllables to what feels like a whole sentence, crescendoing in a shriek: “Test-ih-cuuuull!” Sublime poetry: It’s what we watch Nicolas Cage movies for.

It’s also a blip on Prisoners of the Ghostland’s radar, the moment that makes the movie a must-watch, even though it doesn’t exactly justify the rest of the story. Cage makes no effort at addressing Sono’s audience head-on. But he slops a generous enough ladleful of sauce on his delivery that he hits an anticipatory sweet spot for Sono fans, for DIY steampunk B-movie fans, and for everyone in the audience with a preconception about what they’re supposed to get from a Nicolas Cage performance. Here, he’s ignoring the audience while also meeting them where they want him to be.

The moment contrasts nicely with Cage’s best work in Mandy, a solo scene where he fixates on and rages at the camera, screaming like a man gone mad. Mandy is the culmination of a latter-day career renaissance that began with Brian Taylor’s 2017 movie Mom and Dad, where Cage smashes a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “Hokey Pokey.” In films like that one, Cage fully honed his niche as a presentational actor, someone who, either through direct notice or mannerisms, acknowledges that they’re playing directly to an expectant audience. Prisoners is the beneficiary of that work. By now, Cage is such a master of his style that his viewers know he’s speaking to them and to their expectations of him, even when he doesn’t appear to be. That’s Prisoners of the Ghostland’s “testicles” speech in a nutshell.

Nicolas Cage in Willy’s Wonderland (and in a “Willy’s Wonderland” T-short, hands raised in surrender, glaring offscreen Photo: Screen Media Films

Willy’s Wonderland mostly goes in the same direction, but without the aid of coherent dialogue. The spiritual relative of Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s horror-game series, Willy’s Wonderland challenges Cage to forgo his voice, long considered his best asset. He has to communicate solely through gesture and expression. As a silent stranger stranded in a made-up dump in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada, Cage, aka “the Janitor,” goes toe-to-toe with bloodthirsty animatronic beasts in a family entertainment center-cum-abbatoir, once shut down on account of a rash of child murders, and now in the midst of an ill-advised renovation by macho entrepreneur Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz).

Won’t someone think of the bloodthirsty animatronic beasts? The Janitor tears each of them apart one by one and piece by piece, with zero explanation given to his apparent super-strength and super-endurance. Fan theories posit him as a robot himself, or as an archangel. (Or, based on an original draft of the script, a marine.)

Identity doesn’t mean all that much in Cage’s performance, though. For all it matters, he may as well be playing Nicolas Cage. Willy’s Wonderland suffers from an overabundance of exposition, and a cast of supporting characters written into the movie just to get dead, as curious teens always do in schlock horror. But Cage is once again magnetic. The absence of spoken lines only realigns his electrons and increases his pull. He grunts and growls, grimaces and glares, in turn battering the monsters with mop handles and dismembering them with his bare hands, unbothered by spraying oil as he goes about his work.

After each fight, he cleans up. He changes his shirt. He wraps duct tape around whatever wounds he sustains. This, too, is fundamentally Cagey. He plays characters who exist on an elevated plane, and he plays them with elevated drama. If Prisoners of the Ghostlands is a reminder of what he can do with actual lines, Willy’s Wonderland is an object lesson in the great toolbelt of acting flourishes he carries with him.

Sure, listening to Hero wail angrily over his missing gonad is a hoot. But watching Janitor go sickhouse on Satan’s own Chuck E. Cheese between rounds of soda-fueled pinball is flat-out entrancing. Cage’s work in Wonderland and Ghostland doesn’t constitute “acting” as audiences have been trained to think about “acting”: Every gesture he makes, from the lean-in toward the camera just before he nods “yes” to a question to the cryptic euphoria he exhibits while playing pinball, has purpose. There’s a mechanical logic to his movements, which, if you’re into Reddit speculation, hints at who or what he’s supposed to be playing.

Nicolas Cage, lookin’ scruffy, and a pig, lookin’ fine, in Pig Photo: NEON

The calibrated bizarreness of Prisoners of the Ghostland and Willy’s Wonderland crown Sarnoski’s Pig as the most conventional of Cage’s 2021 trifecta. It’s certainly the most subtle and surprising of the three. It isn’t even that conventional, but it can’t help coming off as “normal” when bookended by the Lewis and Sono movies. Cage’s performances in Wonderland and Ghostland read like the product of a movie star in terms of personality and charisma. In Pig, he comes off as a thespian, a real actor, one devoted to his craft and the pursuit of greater truths through fiction. But Pig’s small scale and Cage’s appropriately small performance belie the size of his personality. In a film this intimate, he still looms like a giant.

Cage plays Rob, a Portland chef who decamped from civilization after his wife’s death, and returns only to recover his stolen truffle pig. He’s a grieving, angry man. He’s rude, he’s unkempt. He’s short with people, if he speaks to them at all. But in Cage’s gruff, muffled speech pattern, there’s an abiding kindness that Rob that holds in reserve until he needs it. Bitter he may be, but he isn’t a heartless misanthrope.

Cage fully articulates that conflicting emotional scale midway through Pig, in a key scene where Rob firmly but empathetically rebukes a former employee turned hotshot culinary star. “Derek, why do you care about these people?” he asks, referring to the customers at the man’s high-end gourmet restaurant. “They don’t care about you. None of them. They don’t even know you, because you haven’t shown them.”

It’s a moment that clangs against the essence of Cage as shown in both Willy’s Wonderland and Prisoners of the Ghostland. Pig reads like an intentional divergence from these two movies, where Cage draws back on the most overt qualities his followers have come to associate with his acting — the histrionics, the noisiness, the genre-centricity — in exchange for a role that allows Cage room for presentational flourishes even couched in realness.

When he addresses Derek, he stares just beyond the cinematographer’s lens as if he’s talking past Derek to us, because we have just as much need to hear what Rob has to say about integrity and self-worth. It’s the effect of the relationship Cage has fostered with the camera and with moviegoers for years, from Raising Arizona to Vampire’s Kiss, from Mom and Dad to Mandy to Color Out of Space, from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to now. He acknowledges his audience as much as his audience acknowledges him. And that circle of awareness — that unique relationship he has with his own reputation and the fans who show up to see how he’ll live up to it — is what makes every new year of his career stand out.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is streaming on Shudder and AMC+, and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms. Pig is streaming on Hulu and is available on Amazon and other services. Willy’s Wonderland is streaming on Hulu and is widely available for rental.