Nicolas Cage stars in a Southern-fried psychological thriller that’s both too much, and not enough.
It feels like we’re just on the verge of a Cageissance. After several long years of accepting roles in movies that looked like they might be money laundering schemes for the Russian Mafia, Nicolas Cage started showing up in respectable projects again, whether it was interesting oddities like Mom and Dad or outright masterpieces like Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and Panos Cosmatos’ gorgeous nightmare Mandy. Cage mentioning in an interview earlier this year that he wanted to work with Ari Aster caused a ripple of excitement in the film community — imagine what he could do if he had another opportunity to work with a writer-director who actually cared about making something that was more than barely competent?
Alas, Cage must still have tax bills and giant pyramid headstones to pay for, because he continues to star in nonsense like Stephen S. Campanelli’s Grand Isle. Cage’s fifth movie of the year (and if you can name the other four* without looking them up, stop what you’re doing and go get a cookie), it’s an erotic thriller that is neither erotic or thrilling. It doesn’t know what kind of movie it is. It’s a movie that features a scene where a woman tears the buttons off a man’s jeans with her high heeled shoe, and also one where another man talks about the guilt he still feels after all his platoon buddies were blown up in Da Nang. It’s a little Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a little Silence of the Lambs, and a whole lot of people just talking and staring at each other in a meaningful, menacing manner.
Arbitrarily set in 1988, Grand Isle opens with Buddy (Luke Benward), a down on his luck Vietnam veteran, arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. His accuser is a detective played by, of all people, Kelsey Grammer, who speaks in a marvelous Foghorn Leghorn “boy, I say boy” accent, and pronounces the name of the movie as “Grond Owl.” This is the kind of movie in which, despite the fact that it takes place in one tiny little Southern town, everybody’s accents are completely different, ranging from barely perceptible to thick as grits. Buddy, our dud of a hero, speaks with no accent at all and has the presence of a high school football player forced to star in the school play as punishment.
Buddy explains to the detective that he took a job fixing a fence at the home of Walt (Cage), who’s also a veteran but seems to be struggling with it on a far more profound level than Buddy. We soon learn that, for reasons that are never really explained, Walt’s not interested in having sex with his extremely horny wife, Fancy (KaDee Strickland), who saunters into the movie wearing lingerie and stiletto heels, even though it’s in the afternoon. Like a character in a Tennessee Williams play (which this movie is desperately, unsuccessfully trying to be), Fancy berates Walt for his lack of manliness, then immediately sets her cap for Buddy.
“Birds leave before a storm comes. They can sense the danger,” Fancy drawls, eyeing Buddy up and down like she’s pricing a stud horse. When both a conveniently timed storm and a stalled-out truck keep him at the house, Buddy has dinner with the couple, during which Fancy aggressively flirts with him and sticks her foot in his crotch, while Walt, who looks like he’s been sleeping in the same clothes for over a month, glowers at them.
Lest you think this is all some sort of weird sex game Walt and Fancy are playing, you’re right, but it’s also a long, drawn-out ploy to trap Buddy in the house so that Walt can talk him into killing Fancy. That turns out to be a ruse as well, however, leading to a third act twist that is somehow both confusing, and deeply stupid. Not as stupid, however, as Buddy, who has several opportunities to simply leave, but doesn’t. He just stumbles around like he’s recently suffered a head injury, looking nonplussed at best while Walt’s behavior becomes increasingly threatening, and Fancy comes on to him so ferociously she all but lifts him up by his ankles and dips him into a vat of lube. Even after things turn violent, Buddy still sticks around, opting to take a peek in Walt and Fancy’s basement rather than flee for his life.
Grand Isle somehow manages to be both ambitious and lazy at the same time, with so many barely developed ideas and dropped plot threads that it feels like Campanelli accidentally shot an outline instead of a completed script.
Grand Isle is a long, dull cocktease of a movie, where even after several scenes of Fancy fondling Buddy and telling him her sexual fantasies, there’s no payoff of a sex scene. It’s mostly the three main characters talking, endlessly, during which Buddy blurts out dialogue like “He asked me to kill you” with all the dramatic weight of telling someone they need to pick up milk from the store. Though he perks up towards the end, Cage looks exhausted most of the time, and you can almost hear the weary sigh as he signed the contract agreeing to star in this. Benward alternates between looking bored and confused, which means Strickland is stuck doing most of the heavy lifting, and her performance is more suited for a Ryan Murphy production than a meant-to-be serious psychological thriller.
It’s the kind of movie where (unable to trust that the audience will remember that it takes place in the South) someone makes mint juleps, Walt and Fancy’s house has a voodoo doll collection, and everyone keeps mentioning how hot it is. Grand Isle has the lofty goal of wanting to say something about guilt, cowardice, and post-war trauma, but also has such glaring continuity errors as Buddy coming in from a torrential downpour in dry clothes, and the sound of a baby crying looped over a shot of a baby who is definitely not crying.
Grand Isle somehow manages to be both ambitious and lazy at the same time, with so many barely developed ideas and dropped plot threads that it feels like Campanelli accidentally shot an outline instead of a completed script. One hopes that Ari Aster does write a role worthy of Nicolas Cage’s genuine talents, because the joke’s over, and it’s getting tiresome and sad to see him wasted in junk like this.
*A Score to Settle, Running With the Devil, Kill Chain, and Primal. Colour Out of Space, which looks promising, doesn’t count because it’s not scheduled for wide release until January.
Grand Isle will be released in theaters and On Demand December 6th