The condemned: Grand Isle (2019)
The plot: At a certain point around the late 2000s, Nicolas Cage movies stopped being other things and more or less became a genre we’ll call “Nicolas Cage movies.” In short, these are genre exercises we watch because Nicolas Cage stars in them. They could be action movies, or thrillers, or action thrillers, but in general they share the fundamental draw of starring Nicolas Cage. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule—Joe and Color Out Of Space, for example, are movies starring Nicolas Cage, not Nic Cage movies (let’s say Mandy splits the difference)—but the majority of his oeuvre these days are B-movies in which his presence is often the sole appeal. When it works, you get things like The Trust. When it doesn’t, dreck like Primal flits across the streaming screens of bored viewers until they remember, “Hey, I’m at home, I can just turn this off.”
Grand Isle knows it lives or dies by Cage’s performance, and even though he’s technically not the main character, he’s certainly the one we’re most interested in. The film is set in 1988 and follows the typical “walk the cop through what really happened” flashback structure, as cuffed murder suspect Buddy (Luke Benward, looking like the love child of Colin Ferrell and Ryan Gosling) tells the detective interrogating him (Kelsey Grammer, doing his best impression of a very tired Foghorn Leghorn) the details of the previous night. Looking for a quick buck to support his wife and sick infant, Buddy accepts a job repairing a section of fence on the lawn of Walter (Cage) and his wife Fancy (KaDee Strickland). Walter promises Buddy a bonus pay of $250 if he can get the job done that afternoon, but when a hurricane rolls in to batter the town and Buddy’s car won’t start, he ends up stuck in the couple’s home.
Walter was a little weird with Buddy to begin with, but once the three of them are trapped together, it all really goes south. Fancy is the living embodiment of the bored Southern housewife looking to spice up her loveless marriage with a little hanky-panky with the new handyman, and after some initial resistance, Buddy goes along with it (weirdly quickly for a predicament in which the soon-to-be-cuckolded husband with a demonstrated history of violence is downstairs). But the real shoe drops once Walter invites Buddy upstairs and confesses his plan: Fancy is dying of a rare blood cancer, so Walter would appreciate it if Buddy would please murder Fancy tonight, before she starts suffering. In exchange, Walter will pay the cash-strapped young man $20,000. Normally, this would be enough for a Southern-fried tale of gothic sexual intrigue, but Grand Isle doesn’t stop there. (Spoilers ahead, if you care about that sort of thing.)
After sleeping with Buddy, Fancy informs him that, no, she doesn’t have blood cancer—and she’d like to have a word with her husband, if you don’t mind. She goes downstairs, but instead of confronting Walter, Fancy tells her husband she’d like them to start over, try and save the marriage properly, a plan to which Walter agrees, at least long enough for Fancy to plunge a knife into his hand. After Buddy ties him up, the wife and handyman plan to leave, but Walter tells Buddy he may want to check the basement before leaving with a woman who has some dark secrets she’s not revealing. That’s when Fancy decides to try and shoot Buddy instead; she frees Walter, and it starts to look like they maybe planned the whole affair? But maybe not, because she seems pretty pissed about the “hiring Buddy to kill her” thing.
Oh, and from there Buddy discovers that the couple have been kidnapping and drugging people, keeping them alive in their basement, and when he awakes the next morning, he’s been framed for the murder of the imprisoned man who told him this—hence the interrogation room situation. The cops then head to the house, where they discover multiple women trapped downstairs, and arrest Fancy, while Walter kills a cop and flees. Weirdest of all, the movie ends a week later, when Buddy, eating at a diner, is confronted by Walter, who took Buddy’s wife hostage, and demands to know some meaningless backstory about Buddy’s time in the navy. Walter decides to then die by suicide (he pulls a couple guns and storms the cops surrounding him), and we get the denouement via news report: The couple had kidnapped young people and forced them to have sex so they could build a “family” hidden in their basement. What? The end.
Over-the-top box copy: I watched this on demand, but it appears there are no hype-worthy quotes at all, a rarity in this day and age. You would have assumed it’d at least say something like, “Hey, Nicolas Cage is in this!” or “Time to roll the dice on a Nicolas Cage movie, no?”
The descent: Oh, let’s be very clear: It was way past time that we covered a Nic Cage movie for Home Video Hell. I’ve gone on record multiple times on this site as being a die-hard Cage fan, as any right-thinking person should be; so when the trailer for this came along, promising some whacked-out Southern gothic Cage, it seemed the perfect opportunity to gamble on one of his little B-movie potboilers.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Have I mentioned Nicolas Cage is in this? I guess Kelsey Grammer deserves a mention too, but it seems fair to suggest no one in the history of the world has ever gone to a movie because they found out Kelsey Grammer was in it. Also, let’s give respect to KaDee Strickland, a good actor who clearly knew exactly what she was signing up for.
The execution: Grand Isle isn’t a very good movie, but it’s trashy and campy enough to make watching it eminently worth your while. For what is basically three people stuck in one location for 90 minutes, director Stephen J. Campanelli (a well-respected longtime camera operator who recently branched out into directing) leans into the lurid pulp of the material, turning the dial on his directing style all the way up to “De Palma imitation.” Cage essentially starts the film at a warped uptempo jitter, and amps up or deadpans the intensity of his weirdness for the duration. His Walter veers wildly between moods, sometimes sneering in the general direction of his entire life, at other moments pouring out his guts to a near-stranger to the point it seems like he might start weeping. It’s a Nic Cage performance, in other words, and it’s one of the fun ones. He seems to be enjoying himself from the get-go, as demonstrated by his first introduction.
But it would be churlish not to give Strickland due credit for her turn here. Unlike a lot of Cage’s costars, who have an (understandable) tendency to underplay a straight man to his scenery chewing, Strickland took one look at this plot and realized she had to meet her fictional husband’s energy on planet Wackadoo. Her Fancy is a sultry femme fatale and vengeful psychopath in equal measure, adopting a set of crazy eyes that are honestly equal to Cage’s. Here’s how she chose to make her entrance into the main storyline, and believe me, it’s far from the most outsized choice she makes.
This leaves Benward with the bland, puppy-dog role of Buddy, which the actor doesn’t so much convey as blankly offer up in sacrifice to the performances of Cage and Strickland. The camera is a much more compelling third interlocutor in the goings-on; I compared Campanelli’s choices here to knock-off De Palma, but there are some moves straight out of the Roger Corman playbook as well, that highlight the absurdities and out-of-nowhere twists with sledgehammer bluntness. Check out this great moment from Fancy giving Buddy a tour of the house, when our dimwitted handyman idly inquires about the door to the basement.
The plot really does sort of spin into incomprehensibility, largely based on the fact that it’s wholly unclear to what degree Walter and Fancy are in cahoots with one another, versus how much they actually loathe each other and want to kill and/or escape their spouse. There are so many throwaway lines about how they’ve been together so long, know each other too well—at one point one says it “seems like a lifetime” and the other replies “Multiple lifetimes”—it erroneously felt something supernatural would be revealed at any moment. (In my notes around halfway through, I wrote “HOLD IT—are they fucking VAMPIRES?!” They are not.) But no, it’s just the gradual dissolution of coherence, as they betray each other and make up in equal amounts, as though they’re more interested in grand cinematic gestures than anything resembling consistent human behavior. And the left-field conclusion, about the girls being forced to get pregnant in the basement to create a family for Fancy (did I mention they turn out to be the pair of Girl Scouts who came to the door selling cookies to Fancy in the very first scene? Boy, that’s some good payoff, Chekhov’s Girl Scouts for sure), is the very definition of, “Wait, what?”
But hey, I hit play on this thing because I wanted to see a fun Nic Cage performance, and I was not disappointed. Speaking of the insanity that is the basement plot twist, here’s the moment when Buddy’s curiosity gets the best of him, and it’s a chance for Cage to do that thing he does.
That’s the kind of thing that makes Grand Isle worth it. The film doesn’t try to be anything but the proudly lowbrow pulp it is, and everyone involved knows they’re aiming for the cheap seats. Even the pointless silliness with Grammer’s detective embraces the stupidity of the proceedings, with Buddy’s demand to speak to a lawyer being met with Grammer’s laconic response: “What you think this is? New York? D.C.? You’re in Grand Isle, son—we don’t subscribe to that big city nonsense.” But hilariously dismissive takes on the American legal system aside, let’s let Cage have the last word, as it should be. Take it away, Walter—Buddy just politely declined your offer of a glass of wine!
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Eh, while it’s not going to vanish completely into the ether the way a lot of Home Video Hell entries do—it is part of the Nicolas Cage filmography, after all—it’s very unlikely to make much of an impression, unless it finds a second life as a Sunday afternoon cable cheapie, an increasingly unlikely phenomenon in the era of streaming.
Damnable commentary track or special feature? It looks like next month’s February 4 release of the movie on Blu-ray and DVD will be about as barebones as it gets, unless there’s some surprise release of a Special Collector’s Edition of Grand Isle. If it had behind the scenes footage of Cage and Strickland getting into character, I would honestly consider buying it.