Friday, April 12, 2024

'Arcadian' (2024) Movie Review

nicolas cage in the movie arcadian
Raising twin teen boys is a harrowing enough proposition, but when you have to raise twin teen boys in the middle of an end-of-the-world scenario, it’s even more fraught with peril. And sibling rivalry, and raging hormones, and dammit-dad-leave-me-alone-I’m-brooding. In this exact predicament is where Nicolas Cage’s Paul finds himself in Arcadian. Not only does he have to protect his sons, Joseph (Jaeden Martell, It, Midnight Special) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins, Lost in Space), from monsters that come in the darkness, he has to keep them from killing each other. No minor feat.


This is a fairly straightforward set up, but not necessarily a simple situation at all. Director Benjamin Brewer’s film, from a script by Michael Nilon, presents a story we’ve seen portrayed multiple times. Arcadian plays a little bit like A Quiet Place, a little bit like It Comes at Night. During the day, the post-apocalyptic survivors are generally free to go about their business of scrounging, farming, and other activities that, you know, ensure their survival. At night, however, they must barricade themselves inside as ill-defined creatures attempt to claw their way inside and do bad things to them, things not usually conducive to staying alive.


[Related Reading: 'Pig' Movie Review]

father sons driving lessons with nicolas cage

Though familiar, the script does a nice job of escalating the stakes and pressure, both from the external threat as well as internally. All three of the primary actors give excellent performances. Cage is restrained and understated; a loving father concerned with passing on the tools his children need to make it in the world. Even given ample opportunity to crank things up, he delivers a weighty, grounded turn.


The kids are the real high point, however. Joseph is quiet and introspective, mechanically inclined, and recreates classic chess games for fun. Thomas, on the other hand, is brash and outgoing, more reckless, and willing to take chances, brimming with teen angst and rebellion. It’s a clash of cerebral versus physical, and Martell and Jenkins embody the complex relationships and emotions. They’re brothers, and there’s a deep, earnest love, but they also know how to push each other’s buttons and sometimes can’t stand to look at one another a second longer. It’s an authentic push and pull. 


[Related Reading: 'A Quiet Place' Movie Review]

jaeden martell and maxwell jenkins looking pensive

Primarily a three-hander, this is where Arcadian is most effective. The familial friction and looming danger play well off each other—don’t you hate it when you want to storm out after a fight with your brother, but you can’t because if you go outside something will rip you apart? The film balances the apocalyptic horror beats with moments of normalcy, like a nice father/sons driving lesson. And in these heightened circumstances, small momentary decisions can and do have drastic, dire consequences.


Brewer and Nilon dole out the information gradually, parsing out tidbits as they go. As is so often the case in this set up, the more we know, the more we see, the less effective it becomes. When it’s a nebulous pounding and clawing at the door in the middle of the night, it’s terrifying. Seeing the monsters lessens the impact, coupled with the fact that their nature and capabilities are left vague and undefined. (How smart are they? What can they actually do? Is there a collective consciousness? It’s all kind of up in the air.) Though watching Nicolas Cage fight monsters with a baseball bat is a fine time, the menace is much more terrifying when it’s a shapeless enemy on the periphery or the other side of a door. 


[Related Reading: 'Midnight Special' Movie Review]

nicolas cage jaeden martell maxwell jenkins at a table

Things also falter a bit when the film attempts to expand the scope of the world. Thomas has a crush on Charlotte (Sadie Soverall, Saltburn), the cute girl at the next farm over, which provides the inciting incident for the plot. Soverall and the character both work well, but when it expands to her family and other survivors on their compound, the result is underdeveloped and unfurls like boilerplate people doing horrid human stuff that’s generic to the point where it’s utterly toothless. 


Taut and tense, if a bit familiar, Arcadian doesn’t bring much new to the table. But what it does it does well, delivering an effective post-apocalyptic thriller with some family drama and a trio of fantastic performances at its center. [Grade: B]

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