Some days, you know you’re watching a good movie; other days, it becomes obvious very quickly that you’re not. Every now and again, you find yourself incapable of deciding. A Score to Settle lands smack dab in this nebulous area, anchored by a mature performance by Nicolas Cage but surrounded by adornments which don’t match his intensity or emotion. And it’s not that an intense performance; Cage plays it rather subdued, giving an everyday workingman’s vibe to this film.
And that’s fine. This movie doesn’t speak in shouts and radical notions. However, it’s pushed too much into a middle ground because it rides on a unknown conceit – the details of which are revealed at the opening of the third act – which observant audiences will pick up almost immediately. John Newman and director Shawn Ku’s screenplay create a dynamic between Cage’s Frank Carver and his son Joey (Noah Le Gros) which wants to evoke a “hangout movie” kind of vibe, but we know there are darker intentions behind everything.
It doesn’t get much darker than murder, which kicks A Score to Settle off and gives us a most jarring jump cut between the young Frank (played by Cage’s nephew Bailey Coppola) and current-day Frank, sitting on his prison bunk. It’s a bit of stunt casting, to be sure, but the shared resemblance goes a long way to establishing some credibility within the film. As it stands, the real-life age difference between the two actors is 22 years, three years more than the 19 years covered by this sudden edit. There’s no score, no sound effect to accompany it; the film simply asks us to accept what it gives us and move on, which is how this entire film operates.
There’s no level of emotional or mental involvement with the characters – not even with Frank, who’s in every shot and scene (except for one pivotal moment). A lot of it has to do with not being privy to his agenda; he simply shows up in places with seemingly no rhyme nor reason, and we don’t know if he’s going to kill people, have a drink with a friend, or buy a nice watch. Ku doesn’t allow us into Frank’s life; we’re merely there as witnesses to this post-prison outing with his son. It’s a neat contrivance which takes some acclimation, but it doesn’t stick the way Ku wants.
We’re also held at arm’s length because of Joey’s aloofness toward his father, which would be normal after a nineteen-year absence from his life. But Joey’s kind of hard to pin down, alternating between standoffishness and being as delighted as a child on Christmas morning when Frank presents him with gifts. There’s also the needy side of Joey seen when Frank chooses to go after the members of his old crew who gave him his 19-year prison stay. Joey seems to be the film’s emotional core, but there’s no consistency with him or emotional grounding – true, it’s for obvious reasons which are revealed later, but until those reasons are revealed, it’s a hard time keeping up with him.
An additional wrinkle in Frank’s story is the possibly-fatal insomnia he developed while in prison. It’s a malady which affects him at very convenient plot moments – while he’s drinking, during sexual intercourse, getting shot at (or vice versa) – and it comes and goes as it pleases. One might say it affects him more constantly upon second viewing, as his symptoms include hallucinations and dementia. Cage is given so much to do with this role and mostly succeeds in carrying the film. One or two sequences give him space to dig in and give us more than a conversational tone, where you think he might go off the chain a bit, but that’s not his character. He’s a nice guy who took the rap for his crime boss and wound up doing more time than expected in exchange for his boss to take care of his family while he was gone.
But something has to allow the title A Score to Settle to make sense. The first act of the movie establishes that he went to prison willingly for his boss, but it doesn’t seem like their arrangement stuck. Maybe that’s why Frank’s suddenly buying guns in the middle of the night and planting nine-millimeter rounds in someone’s forehead. You know, when he’s not buying Joey an expensive sports car or going heels-to-Jesus with a pricey call girl. In the few days we spend with Frank and Joey, it’s not quite a make-up-for-lost-time kinda thing, but it’s close enough. They’ve got years of guilt and grief to shoulder together, and Joey doesn’t want Frank’s revenge plan to separate them again.
For as much as we want to fully immerse ourselves in Frank’s journey, Shawn Ku’s direction and the script prevent us from doing so. It’s predictable due to multiple story beats being lifted from other films, but they’re couched in such a way which almost makes us believe it’s got a semblance of originality. You want to like some of these characters, but they’re all written as off-putting in some manner. No one’s really a good person in any of this, with the sliding scale going from “ehhhh” to “Oh, God, please kill him.” It’s mostly worth it to watch Nicolas Cage dial it back and play a fairly normal guy, but the rest of it is exactly how you’d expect a sick-parolee-with-one-last-job movie to go.