Nicolas Cage delivers one of his best recent performances in this nightmarish psycho-drama from director Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium). Dark, twisted and  deeply unsettling, it’s a cult movie in the making. 

Cage plays The Surfer (his character is never named), a nearly-divorced father who’s trying to buy his childhood home on a stretch of the Australian coastline. With the deal almost closed, he brings his teenage son (Finn Little) to the beach below the property, only to be humiliated and driven off by a surfer gang known as the “Bay Boys”, lead by charismatic, guru-like Scally (Julian McMahon). 

When the gang steals his surfboard and the local cop refuses to help, Cage’s character stubbornly sticks around in the car park above the beach. However, his conflicts with the Bay Boys continue to escalate, along with the scorching summer heat, blurring the edges of both his sanity and his identity. 

The script, by Thomas Martin, is expertly paced, practically taking pleasure in drawing out The Surfer’s disturbing descent into madness. It also plays fascinating games with ideas of identity, as Cage’s character appears to be slowly turning into The Bum (Nicholas Cassim), a bedraggled homeless man who also hangs around the car park and has a long-standing grudge against Scally and the Bay Boys. 

On a similar note, the script is finely balanced, allowing for an intriguing degree of ambiguity over what is real and what is in The Surfer’s head. The feverish heat—heightened by the vibrant cinematography, the terrific location work and some excellent sound design and visual effects—accentuates that idea, to impressive effect. 

On top of that, the film has something to say about localism (“Don’t live ‘ere, can’t surf ‘ere” is the repeated refrain), as well as commenting on a certain type of macho behaviour that is all-too-familiar. Indeed, that’s given a surprising twist in the way the film plays out, which only makes it all the more twisted. 

You can generally tell when Nicolas Cage is truly passionate about a project because he really gives it his all, and that is most definitely the case here. His journey is excruciatingly painful to watch, and Cage makes you feel every moment of his ordeal, even the cringe-inducing moments of arrogance and anger before things go truly wrong. 

McMahon (who looks like he prepared for the role by spending a year on the beach) is also terrific as Scally, and there’s strong support from Cassim as The Bum, while Justin Rosniak is compellingly sleazy as The Cop and Miranda Tapsell offers a lone note of sympathy and kindness as The Photographer, a young woman who allows Cage to charge his electric car.Finnegan has said that the film is inspired by The Swimmer (1968), which starred Burt Lancaster as a man obsessively swimming across the pools of Beverly Hills. The parallels are certainly apparent in the visual look and atmosphere of the film, and if there’s any justice, The Surfer will enjoy a similar cult appeal in years to come.

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