Nicolas Cage in: Time to Kill

Time to Kill

Released in 1989 ▪ Review posted September 21, 2014

Be Italian

Be Italian

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Possibly the most obscure opus in Cage’s oeuvre, Time to Kill is a drama about an Italian army encampment in Ethiopia in 1936. It was made in Italy and has a cast and crew mostly of Italians, but the script is in English. I can find no information about how or why Nicolas Cage came to be involved in this film. Surprisingly, it’s not bad.

Time to Kill is based on the 1950 novel The Short Cut by Ennio Flaiano, a novelist, playwright, and screenplay writer, who is best known for co-authoring ten films with Federico Fellini, including the masterpiece . Since is widely considered to be among the most influential pieces of Italian cinema, it is easy to see the appeal that this project, just one degree from Fellini, might have had to a young and idealistic Nicolas Cage.

In the movie Cage plays Enrico Silvestri, a lieutenant in the Italian army who leaves camp with a toothache in search of a dentist. On the way there his truck slams into a boulder, he takes a bath in a lake with a native Ethiopian girl, rapes her, gives her a Bible, gives her his watch, accidentally shoots her in the stomach, intentionally shoots her to end her suffering, hides her body under some rocks and gets cuts all over his hands, unburies her because he forgot his watch and wanted it back, and—eventually—finds an army dentist to pull his tooth.

After making his way back to the camp and receiving his discharge papers, Silvestri learns that his victim might have had leprosy, possibly explaining why his hand refused to heal. Burdened with guilt about the murder, and feeling unclean both literally and figuratively, Silvestri suffers a slow emotional collapse. He wanders aimlessly from Italian encampments to brothels to his victim’s home village, desperately looking for anyone who will care for him and not banish him for life to a leper colony. Eventually, he runs into his victim’s father, whose Christianity compels him to forgive Silvestri’s sins, and who confirms that his daughter never had leprosy. With his cuts healed and his conscience cleared, Silvestri returns home to Italy.

Despite its low budget and some bizarre trappings of foreign film, Time to Kill is pretty well made. The metaphor of the Italians “raping” Africa in the years right before World War II is a little heavy-handed, but no worse than the metaphors clumsily layered through Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. For the first time, Cage is believable as a soldier. He’s an anti-hero, weighed down by his shortcomings and freed only by information from characters that the film constantly portrays as ignorant. His dramatic arc is realistic.

The biggest criticism to make about Cage in Time to Kill may be that he’s trying too hard. In some moments it seems like he’s gunning for an Oscar. Glimpses of improbable restraint, especially when compared to other Cage roles, suggest that he wanted to deliver a performance that could help generate buzz about the film back home. The outcome isn’t unpleasant, but it is strikingly un-Cage. Sometimes he hits the sweet spot between gonzo and sensible that makes an excellent movie, but this was just off-center, the scales tipped ever so slightly by mid-career Cage’s tendency to play it safe. Regardless, if you are able to get your hands on a copy of Time to Kill (also known by its Italian title Tempo di uccidere), it is a capable film with a sincere Nic Cage delivering an above average performance.

How was the movie?
Draining but good
How was Nic Cage’s acting?
Did his performance make the movie worse?