'Grand Isle': Film Review

VMI Worldwide
Cheesy Southern Gothic.
12/6/2019

Nicolas Cage stars in Stephen S. Campanelli's thriller about a couple who plays mind games with a stranded young man.

A mere glance at the poster for this week's new Nicolas Cage movie (he's done six this year, but who's counting?) provides reassuring comfort that Grand Isle will feature the hard-working actor in reliably gonzo mode. This sweaty slice of Southern Gothic melodrama directed by Stephen S. Campanelli (best known as a veteran Steadicam operator, a skill which probably comes in handy when filming the volatile Cage) is the sort of old-fashioned, B-movie thriller best seen at a drive-in on a rainy night.

That's because much of the story takes place during a hurricane, an ever-reliable plot device for keeping disparate characters confined together under adverse circumstances. That's certainly the case in this film co-written by Iver William Jallah and Rich Ronat, which utilizes a framing device involving a police interrogation conducted by a detective played by Kelsey Grammer (clearly relishing the opportunity to flex his Southern accent muscles, which, judging by the onscreen results, need more time in the dialect gym).

The suspect being grilled turns out to be Buddy (Luke Benward), a blue-collar worker struggling with financial issues, a strained marriage and an infant daughter with health problems. Faced with a murder charge, Buddy attempts to clear himself by relating the story of his recent experience working to repair a picket fence for local couple Walter (Cage) and his wife Fancy (KaDee Strickland, stealing the movie), who live in a palatial Southern estate. It's not an easy assignment, since Fancy makes her amorous interest all too evident (she sexily kisses his thumb after he accidentally hits it with his hammer) and Walter makes his disapproval known by firing rifle shots at bottles located perilously close to Buddy as he works.

The story is set in 1988, mainly to make Cage credible as an emotionally troubled Vietnam vet (the only kind seen in bad movies) and to fuel the plot by having Buddy need to enter the house to use the couple's phone after his truck doesn't start.

Unable to leave before the hurricane arrives in full force, Buddy uneasily accepts their invitation to dinner which begins, in true Southern fashion, with some mint juleps. It isn't long before Fancy is playing footsie with him under the table and Walter is relating his still-festering angst over having had to leave the Marine Corps just before his entire unit was massacred in a raid.

You'd think by that point that Buddy would realize that braving a hurricane would be preferable to staying in the house featuring a mysteriously locked basement and more than a few voodoo dolls, but no. After dinner, Walter falls asleep in a drunken stupor and Fancy takes the opportunity to seduce her guest by removing his pants buttons with her high heels. Things only get stranger from there, with Walter offering Buddy $20,000 to kill his wife, whom he claims is suffering from terminal "blood cancer," and Buddy discovering a bound and gagged man hooked up to an IV in the basement.

Despite Cage's star billing and long experience playing bizarre characters, it's actually Strickland who delivers the most memorable performance as the sexy femme fatale who isn't shy about taking a candlelit bath in front of her guest while sipping wine and listening to Billie Holiday's recording of "Strange Fruit." The actress delivers the sort of compelling sultry turn that almost, but not quite, makes you believe that Buddy would risk sleeping with her character even with her husband just one floor below.

Unfortunately, the bland Benward proves far less interesting as the hapless Buddy, and Cage doesn't manage to make his customary nutjob shtick sufficiently entertaining to compensate for the hoary and contrived plot mechanics. Far stronger on atmosphere than actual suspense, Grand Isle plods along in tedious fashion, not helped by its awkward framing device that gives it the feel of a Southern fried police procedural.

Production companies: Saturn Films, Jeff Rice Films, Film Keyz Production
Distributor: Screen Media
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Luke Benward, KaDee Strickland, Kelsey Grammer, Zulay Henao, Oliver Trevena, Emily Marie Palmer, Beatrice Hernandez
Director: Stephen Campanelli
Screenwriters: Iver William Jallah, Rich Ronat
Producers: Jake Seal, Raja Collins, Jeff Rice
Executive producer: Terry Bird
Director of photography: Eric Moyner
Production designer: Kevin Lang
Editor: Eric Potter
Compose: Josh Atchley
Costume designer: Lee Kyle
Casting: Susan Paley Abramson, Justine Hempe

97 minutes