Nicolas Cage has enjoyed an unparalleled run of indie film weirdness over the past decade, applying his distinct brand of onscreen “Cage-iness” to everything from psychedelic metal revenge sagas to animatronic-laden B-movies and a meta comedy where he played Nicolas Cage. The actor was once mocked for his perceived low standards for roles, but recent reappraisals of his 2010s output have led many to see his willingness to leave everything on the court for small projects as something worth admiring. Even the simplest of premises and the lowest of budgets can become something special as long as Cage is afforded enough screen time to go apeshit.

But that framing, while partially accurate, negates the equally important flip side of Cage’s love affair with independent genre films. His penchant for cinematic freak-outs is unquestioned, but the actor is perfectly willing to lay down his metaphorical weapons and give restrained performances when a script calls for it. Cage is the kind of star whose name can get a bizarre script greenlit at the right price and instantly catch the attention of midnight moviegoers, and some of his most generous contributions to the space have come when he lent his talents to something strange without any expectation of a moment in the spotlight.

“Arcadian” firmly fits into that latter category. While the lines stretching around the block for its SXSW premiere at the Paramount Theater likely had plenty to do with the prospect of seeing Cage in a post-apocalyptic horror movie, his performance won’t generate any viral “Cage moments.” Instead, the actor gives a much more muted (but no less impressive) performance as a father struggling to protect his two sons in a world overrun by monsters.

Directed by Cage’s “The Trust” filmmaker Ben Brewer, “Arcadian” splits the difference between contemporary horror movies and ’80s Spielberg blockbusters, relying on clever jump scares and sentimental music cues in equal measure. An elegant little film about the things in life that are worth taking risks for, “Arcadian” is a reminder of how much Cage has to offer us when he’s not contorting himself into something indescribable.

Set in a world so irreparably broken that nobody can even remember exactly what caused the downfall of human society, the movie follows Paul (Cage) as he shields his twin teenage sons Joseph (Jaeden Martell) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) from the horrors that lurk outside the boundaries of their farm. The family lives in fear of a flock of nameless nocturnal monsters who try to enter their home each night, and Paul spends his days reinforcing the system of locks and barriers that keep the house secure. At night, all they can do is push against the doors and try to ignore the claws scratching against their walls.

But teenagers don’t stop being teenagers just because the world is ending. Paul still deals with many of the challenges that have plagued fathers since the beginning of time — namely that his sons always want to take the car out and they’re never home before their curfew. He’s set strict rules with the hope of ensuring that nobody is ever outside when the sun sets and the monsters come out, but the allure of riding their makeshift ATV to visit the other humans inhabiting their sparse rural oasis is often too strong for the boys to resist.

Paul’s lectures about safety probably started falling on deaf ears long before this movie begins, but his concerns shift from the abstract into reality when Thomas doesn’t come home one night. After staying out late to pursue a budding romance with a local girl named Charlotte (Sadie Soverall), he falls into a crevice on the way home and finds himself trapped in the woods as darkness falls.

When Paul ventures out to save him, all three men end up in their own form of danger. Thomas is considerably outnumbered by the monsters when he’s left to defend their house by himself, and Paul finds that his years of preparation still haven’t made him immune to the dangers of the woods. It becomes clear that their only option is to rely on help from their neighbors — no easy task in a world where everyone is focused on hoarding resources for their own survival.

Alternating between terror and sentimentality until its final moments, “Arcadian” is another solid addition to Cage’s genre filmography. What starts as a simple survival story finds its footing as a nuanced exploration of the value of safety and security and the moments when we decide it’s worth giving up. While the ostrich-like creatures with extendable limbs and vibrating mouths are terrifying in their own right, the film’s biggest scare might be how it reminds us that we can’t shield our kids from danger forever.

Grade: B

“Arcadian” premiered at SXSW 2024. RLJE Films will release it in select theaters on Friday, April 12.

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