“‘Arcadian’ Review: Nicolas Cage’s Shudder Horror Delivers Must-See Thrills at SXSW 2024”

“Are we safe? Are we secure?”

Nicolas Cage, Maxwell Jenkins, and Jaeden Martell driving an ATV in Arcadian. Image via SXSW

THE BIG PICTURE

Arcadian is a great Nicolas Cage movie with a solid horror story that takes itself seriously.
 It captures a unique post-apocalyptic world where monsters lurk in the darkness
 Cage delivers a grounded performance, showcasing real emotional depth before letting loose in the end.

We love a great Nicolas Cage movie, don’t we folks? No, I’m not talking about the ones that try to ironically play off of the stature that he has accumulated in Hollywood. I’m talking about the ones that are actually damn good movies that prove Cage is not just one of the most versatile, charismatic chameleons of an actor, but the ones that also happen to be effective works in their own right. Not only is director Benjamin Brewer’s Arcadian a good Nicolas Cage movie, but it’s one of the most fun cinematic experiences that he has been a part of in recent memory. It’s a work of horror worth taking seriously even as things go gloriously off the rails.

While great to see Cage fighting post-apocalyptic demons, it is all built around a sturdy story that never undercuts itself by winking to the camera as some others have struggled to do in the past. In a script written by Michael Nilon, Cage is able to genuinely explore a world alongside his co-stars Jaeden Martell and Maxwell Jenkins as a family unit facing down the end of everything as we’ve known it.

While there is an awareness of Cage’s persona and quite a lot of fun to be had when this is utilized, the movie also takes itself seriously, making every second of the buildup count before it explodes outwards in glorious fashion. It may not reinvent the wheel, but man is it great to see this movie set it spinning forward at full speed.

What Is ‘Arcadian’ About?

This all begins with Paul (Cage) as he travels through the ruins of the old world that is now crumbling to scavenge what he can. Echoing something like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men in how it relies on an unbroken handheld shot, which is how the majority of the movie is shot, this is a less dynamic opening than anything in that while remaining effective at capturing what it sets out to do.

Without Cage saying a word, we are given a proper introduction to who Paul is and what he is facing. We see him having to hurry where he can while also proceeding carefully through what seems to be a city that has been overrun by something. At one point, the camera stops while he continues, and we are given a hint of what seems like it could be a fight against something terrifying playing out just out of sight.

The film then cuts to a striking locked-down shot of this world as Paul looks out on it, as if saying goodbye, before he returns to a place where he has hidden away his two young boys who are only babies. He comforts them but seems overwhelmed by the road ahead. We then cut to fifteen years in the future as Joseph (Martell) and Thomas (Jenkins) are both surviving with their father at a remote home.

They each hurry to get indoors, with Paul waiting for both to make it back before going inside himself, as it is soon clear that to stay outside at night is a death sentence. Banging on the fortified door indicates that whatever is out there is testing the defenses of the people who are still left alive, trying to find a way in. Though we’ll get plenty of good looks at these well-designed creatures later in the film, even just hearing them carries with it a sense of dread. The sounds they make will only get more unsettling.

‘Arcadian’ Is a Horror Movie That Charts Its Own Course

Nicolas Cage overlooks the ruins of the old world in Arcadian. Maxwell Jenkins, Nicolas Cage, and Jaeden Martell sharing a dinner together in Arcadian.A white farm door has been clawed into by something in Arcadian.Nicolas Cage leads up again a tree with a waterfall as the backdrop for his loneliness in ArcadianSadie Soverall holds a shotgun while looking around a corner in Arcadian.

While this sounds like it could be a cross between a movie like A Quiet Place and the series FromArcadian quickly carves out its own rules that set it apart. Namely, there aren’t really any rules. In one scene that serves to establish the pain facing its young characters just as it does how little they know about what happened, Thomas plays a game with his crush Charlotte (Sadie Soverall) who lives in a nearby community.

They try to quickly explain what caused the end of the world, offering wild stories that are more playful than they are productive in terms of what they tell us about the truth. The characters are kept in the dark and this is where oh so many of them will die. Even as the film holds back a little bit when it comes to gore, the sequences where the monsters come out to play are no less creepy.

One standout involves things slowing way down as a hand emerges from a hole in a door, getting longer and longer before it seems like it will be able to grab the character that has fallen asleep while standing guard. It not only looks good in terms of its visual effects, but the way it is constructed is where it also works.

There are plenty of more chaotic scenes the longer it goes on, but there is something special to just seeing something gradually get closer to having you in its grasp that is worth appreciating as well. The film is not just relying on the monsters to drive things as it finds ways to ratchet up the terror when you least expect it. When Thomas is returning home one day and stumbles into a dark pit, the way the shot just holds ensures that you feel the fall even as you didn’t see him make an impact.

This is the inciting incident that then sees Paul go out to find him while Joseph must stay back at home all by himself until the sun comes up. There is more to the story than that, but the rest of the film is best experienced knowing little more. What can be said is the remaining humans will soon find the fragile tranquility they’ve fought to build for themselves may be dragged to hell.

While Not the Main Character, Cage Kills It in ‘Arcadian’

Nicolas Cage sits in a chair in Arcadian. Image via Shudder

The one other thing that should be noted, while remaining quite coy about the particulars surrounding it, is that Cage is taken out of commission for a significant part of the film. Don’t fret though as when he’s in action, he’s as good as he’s ever been. There are moments where he plays Paul with a more grounded seriousness, almost feeling like his magnificent work in the nearly perfect movie that is Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, and where we really develop an emotional connection to him as he tries to protect his family when that is getting increasingly impossible to do.

While there are certainly many a meme (bleh) that have been about how Cage can go wild on screen, this film is refreshingly not one that tries to cheaply cash in on that. Instead, you fully believe every second of his performance. It serves as another reminder that Cage is a great actor who can make the most of even the simplest of scenes.

One line he gets towards the end is this in action as all the attention turns to him and it seems like we are gearing up for some sort of delivery of a catchphrase. Instead, Cage plays it straight, making the impact of even a single word more effective precisely because of how earnest it is. Even when he fades into the background a bit, rather than feel like something is lost as a result, it opens up a lot of interesting opportunities to find new moments of horror and heart.

What this all entails involves showing how the brothers, while different in many ways and prone to butting heads, are also some of the only people left in the world who care about the other.

Their relationship is natural and believable as we can see the men they are growing into becoming. While Arcadian is not some sort of rich character study where we get to see them develop over several years, instead keeping things mostly confined to a handful of days, the emotional beats all work. A scene where Paul is attempting to teach Joseph how to drive is silly though oddly sweet as we see a normal ritual of life continuing on even as everything else has fallen apart.

It is moments like this that then gives everything that kicks off real stakes as we’ve come to care about the characters and their relationships. Even Charlotte, while perhaps a little underwritten at times, is given a lot through Soverall’s performance. Though her motivations are more broadly sketched, she never misses a step while wielding a shotgun.

Similarly, both Martell and Jenkins also do a great job. While the former is no stranger to horror, having starred in the recent It series, this feels like something that gives him more room to help carry a movie all on his own.

When the characters then take part in a climactic battle for their futures, with Cage getting an all-timer of a scene that feels earned after everything else was more reserved, you’re with them every step of the way. Though its world has fallen into darkness, Arcadian carries the horror torch forward to become a solid monster movie. Best watch your step, A Quiet Place, as there may be something lurking beneath you.

arcadian-posterArcadian (2024)

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