Nicolas Cage is suitably unhinged as a father out for revenge in Lorcan Finnegan’s Australia-set psychological thriller

The Surfer

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘The Surfer’

Dir: Lorcan Finnegan. Australia/Ireland. 2024. 99mins

For those who prefer their Nicolas Cage vehicles pitched at maximum intensity, The Surfer may provide temporary pleasures, featuring the Oscar-winner as an increasingly harried Australian father obsessed with getting revenge on the local bullies who embarrassed him in front of his son. Irish director Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium) specialises in disorienting psychological thrillers, and, true to form, his new film starts in a realistic vein before quickly descending into darker, more absurdist terrain. While Cage gets to flaunt his barking-mad side, The Surfer’s grim commentary on masculinity and material success proves only sporadically haunting. 

The film’s ecstatic strangeness should guarantee its future midnight-movie status

Finnegan’s 2016 debut Without Name premiered in Toronto, while his follow-up Vivarium (2019) screened in Cannes Critics Week and Nocebo (2022) bowed at Sitges before landing on Netflix. The Surfer, his fourth feature, debuts in a Cannes Midnight slot, with Cage’s presence an attractive hook for buyers. The film’s ecstatic strangeness should guarantee its future midnight-movie status, appealing to audiences who savour moments when the risk-taking actor goes to extremes, whether that means thirstily drinking disgusting liquids or randomly bellowing in anguish.

As the picture begins, Cage’s unnamed character is piloting his expensive Lexus to a remote Australian beach near where he grew up, his distant (and also unnamed) teenage son (Finn Little) in the passenger seat. Born in Australia before moving to California as a young man — hence, the lack of an accent — the father wants to show his boy a patch of surf he loved as a kid, before delivering the surprise news that he is about to buy back the nearby house where he was raised.

But once father and son make their way down to the water to surf, they are accosted by a gang called the Bay Boys, led by the imposing Scally (Julian McMahon), who informs them that the beach is for locals only, verbally humiliating the mild-mannered dad and threatening violence if he does not leave. Ashamed that his son saw him be so weak, and dismayed by a sudden revelation from his broker that another potential buyer may scoop up his family home with a higher bid, Cage’s well-to-do character panics that his grand plan is unravelling. After the son opts to return to his mother — who is starting a new life with her fiance — the father starts spiralling, projecting his rage onto the Bay Boys.

The Surfer surveys the maniacal escalation of terrible things that happen to Cage’s character: his phone runs out of battery, his car goes missing, and he quickly becomes dehydrated because of the unforgiving sun. In addition, Finnegan weaves in jarring mini-flashbacks that could be images from this man’s troubled past or bizarre visions that suggest his crumbling mental state. With a soundscape that loudly amplifies the buzz of a fly or the caw of a bird, the film embeds us inside the father’s brittle psyche as he rockets toward his breaking point. But signs continually point to the fact that he has larger concerns than the Bay Boys: people he meets, like a local barista (Adam Sollis), suddenly do not recognise him, and passersby start confusing him with a dishevelled homeless man (Nic Cassim). Is he going mad? 

Melodramatic theatrics are nothing new for Cage, but Finnegan – whose Vivarium was a wry head-trip about the terror of domesticity – is after more than campy escapism, crafting a hypnotic experience in which his protagonist’s implosion seems tied to unresolved childhood issues. The desperation to buy the family home is shown as a means for Cage’s character to reconnect with his own late father (a man whose mysterious past will slowly be revealed), and it’s also an attempt to prove to his son that he is a worthy patriarch. But Scally’s bullying only further exacerbates our hero’s feelings of emasculation, which play out in the script’s systematic stripping away of his possessions and dignity. 

Cage’s commitment to this fracturing reality gives it a solid anchoring. The actor is suitably unhinged, but he also brings ample vulnerability to the role of a flailing alpha male trying to hold his crumbling world together. That skill is less effective in a picture that unsatisfyingly teases us about what is real and what is only in its protagonist’s head. Plus, the film’s deeper themes — and the riddle of what happened to the man’s own father — end up resolving themselves in superficial, fairly obvious ways. Finnegan continues to demonstrate a passion for upending the banality of the everyday, but The Surfer gets as lost as its protagonist, unable to ride the wave of its own mad design.

Production companies: Saturn Films, Arenamedia, Lovely Productions, Tea Shop 

International sales: North.Five.Six, / US sales: WME Independent, 

Producers: Leonora Darby, James Harris, Robert Connolly, James Grandison, Brunella Cocchiglia, Nicolas Cage, Nathan Klingher 

Screenplay: Thomas Martin

Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk 

Production design: Emma Fletcher

Editing: Tony Cranstoun

Music: Francois Tetaz

Main cast: Nicolas Cage, Julian McMahon, Nic Cassim, Miranda Tapsell, Alexander Bertrand, Justin Rosniak, Rahel Romahn, Finn Little, Charlotte Maggi