The Surfer: a compelling addition to the Cage rage canon

Nicolas Cage stars as an unnamed, desperate Australian surfer who is humiliated by a hostile gang of locals in Lorcan Finnegan’s lightly psychedelic thriller.

Nicolas Cage in The Surfer (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. 

Another welcome addition to the perpetually entertaining ‘Nicolas Cage descends into madness’ canon, The Surfer is a compellingly fraught second feature from Vivarium (2019) director, Lorcan Finnegan. While Cage’s gradual breakdown is never quite as frenzied or bloody as his indelible performance in Mandy (2018), he leaves no emotion untapped here as a father traumatised by his marriage dissolution and a harrowing childhood event that took place at the Australian beach from which the film never strays.

As the titular but otherwise unnamed wave-rider, he’s hopeful and happy when the film begins. He’s eager to introduce his son to the huge waves and area he grew up in and buoyed by the prospect of purchasing the cliff-top home in Lunar Bay (actually Yallingup, Western Australia) his father once owned. There’s a snag when his real estate agent calls him to say the price has gone up, but a bigger problem arises when a rowdy gang of local surfers led by a man from his past called Scally (Julian Mcmahon), refuse to let him into the ocean. They are adamant the beach is only for locals only, keen to enforce a mantra: “don’t live here, don’t surf here”. Our man refuses to leave despite the abuse he receives from a few neighbourhood characters.

Having bartered his watch for a coffee with an unsympathetic kiosk worker who won’t let him charge his phone, an angry punter deliberately knocks the drink all over him. Then the gang steal his surfboard and car when he leaves it unattended. Penniless and starving, he resorts to eating a rat, a nauseating scene surpassed by the repeated shots of a water fountain spoiled by leaking bags of dog faeces.

As the surfer becomes increasingly dishevelled and broken, brief flashbacks of his devastating past become fleshed out among his spoken interactions that mean film’s final reveal is heavily telegraphed, though this doesn’t make the journey to the conclusion less worthwhile. We get trademark bursts of Cage rage, laced with a deep melancholy. Screenwriter Thomas Martin cites John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer and its 1968 adaptation starring Burt Lancaster as a big inspiration, even if Lancaster never had to grapple with a cult of surf bullies who spat at him. Finnegan’s film is a more visually arresting one than Frank Perry’s, occasionally bordering on the psychedelic, but as strong portrayals of a lonely man pushed over the edge by his demons, the two are of a piece.