I am glad that Nicolas Cage has paid off his tax debts. Now the actor can return to more interesting cinematic fare. While Chris McKay’s “Renfield” isn’t exactly “Moonstruck” or “Leaving Las Vegas”, the film finds Cage (an avid fan of Nosferatu and German Expressionist horror) having a blast in a role he has longed to play.
Cage is marvelous as Dracula. Lest anyone cast doubt, the man is, has always been, and always will be one of American cinema’s most original and inventive thespians (Cage’s preferred moniker over “actor”).
As the world’s most famous vampire, the actor relishes every moment, embracing the dark humor of the character and the viciousness of Dracula’s appearance. With razor sharp teeth, jet black hair, white powdery skin, and long fingernails, Cage’s portrayal has the look and feel of a refined beast, a seductive devil with a wicked grin.
The thespian has always had a penchant for the extreme. As Dracula, Nicolas Cage has gruesome fun (as does the audience when he is on screen), giving one of the most enjoyable performances of his last decade of films.
The crushing news is that his excellent work is reduced to only three or four scenes (the film IS called “Renfield” for a reason) and those scenes are the best parts of one of the sloppiest, badly written, and incompetently directed films of the year.
Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is, of course, Bram Stoker’s bug-eating slave to his undead master.
McKay’s film finds Renfield as a man searching for his identity and his once human soul, the later long tarnished due to his evil deeds as Dracula’s familiar. His life is spent bringing victims home for his master to feast, but Renfield is beginning to see the good in humanity.
That good comes from New Orleans police officer Rebecca Quincey (the always endearing Awkwafina).
Quincey and a restaurant full of patrons are saved from attackers by Renfield and the two are drawn to one another. Sadly, Ridley’s script is lost after the setup. Awkwafina has only one other moment with our title character (he brings her flowers to the police station while giving his witness statement) before the film loses track of what to do with her.
Hoult works as Renfield but brings nothing special to the role. He tries hard and makes the strange choice to play the character as Hugh Grant would during his foppish, stammering, performances of the 90s, which works as much as it doesn’t.
Ryan Ridley’s screenplay adds a ridiculous new “twist” as the reason the character eats bugs; they give him superhero-like powers.
Thanks to this stupid use of creative license, we must suffer through more than one action sequence where Renfield flies Matrix-style doing superhuman feats to slay the baddies while pop songs and annoying techno music are used ironically as the mayhem ensues.
In fairness, there were a few seconds of fun to be had watching Renfield tear people’s arms off and use them to kill even more villains, but it wasn’t enough. The filmmakers went for the gore yet fumbled its use.
The jokes set in the support group sessions are hackneyed to the extreme, although Brandon Scott Jones as the group’s leader Mark gives a humorous performance.
Nicolas Cage can be a master at making over-the-top into Art. The same cannot be said of Ben Schwartz, though he (over)does his damndest. The actor plays the son of the city’s crime lord (the great Shohreh Aghdashloo, wasted in a clichéd role).
Schwartz tries to be manic and creepy but becomes annoying and ridiculous. It is an awful performance of a dreadfully designed character.
Director McKay’s background is in animation, and he should probably stay there, as he made “The Lego Batman Movie” surprisingly entertaining.
For this film, the editing (credited to three editors!) is slapdash and causes the film to feel like a pastiche of random scenes in search of a uniform consistency they never find. From the blocking (such as it is) to the editing, to the camera placement, almost every scene feels like a first take.
I return to the performance of Nicolas Cage, as this is the reason to see the film.
Through his seductive eyes and quirky gestures, Cage brings out the inventiveness that the screenplay was searching for. His execution is completely hypnotic, as we are seduced by both Dracula and the man playing him.
There was a lot of potential in placing Renfield in the modern world as a member of a support group for codependent victims. The idea is a clever one, but the director and screenwriter can’t get beyond the premise.
“Renfield” is too disorganized, at times maddeningly so. This is both an overstuffed and undercooked film that fails to match up to Nic Cage’s excellent work.
Written by Ryan Ridley (From a story idea by Robert Kirkman)
Directed by Chris McKay
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina
R, 93 Minutes, Universal Pictures/Skybound Entertainment