Max (Denny Bess) has recently been released from prison, and is trying to get a new start on life. His friend Ziggy (Don Striano) helps set him up with an apartment, and Max finds a friend/love interest in next door neighbor Sara (Reyna Kahan). He’s struggling to find work, but that is to be expected somewhat considering his criminal past. And while his criminal activities have all but ceased, he’s still under the thralls of drug addicition.
His situation gets even more complicated when a crime boss, Lucius (Mark Borkowski), becomes aware that Max is out of jail and back in town. Considering Max stole a significant sum of money from Lucius, Max isn’t necessarily free from the cage of his old life. With the clock ticking away, Max must decide what moves he can make, and when to make them.
Pacing the Cage is an understated experience, which is to say that while there are dramatic developments, it’s not typically explosive melodrama. Max is an ex-con junkie who screwed over a crime boss, and there are a ton of clichés that the film could run with that it instead stays away from, focusing more on the simplicity of the tale of a guy trying to reset his life before it is too late. The result of this muted drama is that it feels more realistic.
For example, Lucius, the crime boss who represents the biggest threat to Max (besides Max’s drug addiction) certainly has his raw moments, but his portrayal is more a naturalistic one of paranoia and fear; he’s less concerned about the money Max stole than he is about those around him perceiving him as weak. He has a role to play, all the time, and it has destroyed him from the inside, and thus he spreads that pain of disintegration to everyone around him. Which is probably more accurate to how things could be in this scenario than the well-dressed, hitmen-commanding masters of crime we see in most other flicks. He’s in a position of power, but he’s damaged.
Which is why Max lives as long as he does, because, again, if this were another, more cliché-friendly tale, either Max or those he cares about would be on the business end of a gun in no time. Here, though, Max knows there’s a ticking clock, but he also knows that he’s not a dead man until the money re-surfaces, and thus he’s got some time to work with. The fact that he’s easily dismissed as a junkie actually plays to his advantage.
All that said, while the film’s quietly earnest approach helps it transcend the stereotypical directions it could take, it is still something we’ve seen before. The film isn’t going to win any awards for narrative originality so much as the nuance of its execution. And that nuanced pace isn’t going to be for everyone; this is a slow burn, and the title actually fits perfectly. This is a story of a man biding his time, pacing his cage. And like any animal anxious to be free, you know as soon as that door opens that they’re going to bolt. In this case, those handling Max’s cage aren’t aware of how effective he could at escape, given the opportunity; they’re not aware that his movements aren’t merely mindless back-and-forth.
Overall, I appreciated Pacing the Cage for its subtlety, and was refreshed to see this type of narrative handled without histrionics or lots of gunplay and scene-chewing. Those expecting the typical crime drama may find this too slow for its own good, but it worked for me and I enjoyed the world the film created. It didn’t blow me away, and isn’t necessarily a film I’d watch again, but it wasn’t a bad time either. It did its job well enough, and there’s something to be said for pulling that off competently.
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