Cheap shortcuts and overused devices kill Nic Cage's 'Pay the Ghost'
Pay the Ghost RLJ Entertainment
Director: Uli Edel
Screenplay: Dan Kay, based on the novel by Tim Lebbon
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Jack Fulton, Lyriq Bent, Veronica Ferres and Stephen McHattie
Not rated / 1 hour, 34 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
There is a scene in Pay the Ghost that ... [takes off glasses, pinches bridge of nose, sighs] ... I mean, I don't want to say "lazy." Lazy doesn't do it justice. It's more like ... a towering, shimmering monument to laziness. A cathedral of laziness. The kind of laziness that makes Google search scenes - or, if you want to go vintage, library microfiche scenes - seem like labyrinthine plot devices by comparison. I almost wanted to applaud.
It goes a little something like this: Nicolas Cage accosts a random woman at a local Halloween celebration and demands she explain everything she knows about a specific 17th Century curse. And, despite her admitted lack of expertise, she proceeds to tell him everything he needs to know to solve the film's central mystery. Here is every single piece of information you'll need for the rest of the movie. Here are all the plot details. Here are all the rules you'll have to follow. Here are all the exact locations you'll need to know. And of course here is the exact timeline you'll need to follow. Good luck!
I wish I could say that's an exaggeration. It's not. It almost feels like the production just ran out of money, and decided to blend all the un-shot scenes into one giant, two-minute information dump. There's not even any real effort to make the scene plausible. Cage has spent the first hour or so of the movie trying to unravel the mystery of his son Charlie's disappearance the previous Halloween. When he finally latches onto a particular local legend, he finds a group of hobbyists, pulls one out of the crowd, and demands answers. When she insists she's just having fun and can't really help him, Cage simply demands answers louder, and the woman instantly provides him with literally everything he needs to know to solve the mystery and (presumably) get his kid back.
We see scenes like this all the time. There's not enough time to discover each clue piece by piece, so we get a chunk of information all at once. Sometimes it's a book (preferably an ancient one, found in the dusty corners of a moribund library). Sometimes it's a stack of old newspapers or recordings. Probably most often, it's a lone expert of some kind - a professor, a journalist, a witness, an obsessive.
That's the direction Pay the Ghost wants to go, but it doesn't give enough storytelling effort to get away with it. When expository scenes like that work, they give us hints and backstory that illuminate our understanding of the story; but in this case, the scene provides no such illumination - it just gives us answers to the puzzle. If director Uli Edel and screenwriter Dan Kay were in charge of putting together a scavenger hunt, instead of leaving clues they'd just write a list telling everyone where all the remaining items were. If you hired them to help you study for a test, instead of tutoring you they'd just slip you a cheat sheet with all the correct answers circled.
But beyond that laziness, the most decisive impact the scene has is the way it irreversibly defines what the movie is all about. It decides that it doesn't really care about the disappearance per se - the loss of a son without explanation - but only about solving the mystery and having our hero try to get the kid back. It chooses the path of least resistance (and I mean least), glossing over any attempt to examine Cage's guilt (he was with Charlie at a local Halloween celebration, holding his hand, when he suddenly disappeared); instead, we get a collection of tired clichés, like the grieving father repeatedly bursting into the police station to berate the case officer for not getting his son back yet.
In Pay the Ghost's best moments, it's ostensibly about the loss itself, rather than whatever mythology is going to serve as the explanation (and possible solution) for the crime. The film is conspicuous in how divorced those elements - character/theme vs. plot - seem to be from one another. A good thriller like this requires those things to work hand in hand; we explore the characters through their probing of the mystery. Here, everything comes across as disparate, competing devices. The struggling family (overworked dad, frustrated mom) dealing with a sudden crisis. A half-baked procedural. Supernatural visions, centuries-old myths. The filmmakers do none of those elements any favors - nor their cast. Cage's Mike Lawford is one of those professors that only exists in movies - the "cool" lecturer who recites Lovecraft (THEMES!) and gets greeted with sudden applause from his students. His wife Kristen (The Walking Dead's Sarah Wayne Callies) is never handled as anything more than the powerless wife and mother. The detective (Lyriq Bent) is not a character at all - just an occasionally handy plot mechanism.
Edel and cinematographer Sharone Meir (Whiplash, Mean Creek) do offer some arresting images, particularly during the moments that touch on supernatural material. And they don't oversell them, either; what I like about many of those moments is how they play on a subconscious level - ambiguous and suggestive - instead of operating as a series of jump scares.
But let's not get too off track here - Pay the Ghost is still an unforgivably lazy supernatural thriller that feels less and less convinced of itself as it goes along. The same can't be said of Nic Cage, who appears pretty game throughout ... which is not to say it's a particularly good performance. Just a committed one. (His earnest efforts to sell C-grade material often end up working against him.) I realize we're well into the VOD period of Cage's career, but I still hold out hope that he can eventually put that sense of effort to better use once again.