Review: Chris McKay's 'Renfield' is Precisely What It's Expected To Be
by Manuel São Bento
April 19, 2023
Purposefully exaggerated, extremely caricatural, or simply ridiculous movies aren't really a type of film that the general audience enjoys very much. Nicolas Cage is one of the most iconic actors in modern cinema, and the absolute king of performances usually described as "over-the-top" (OTT) – that is, excessive at all levels. Again, there's a big division between viewers who can enjoy this type of presentation and others who find this unbearable. Renfield is the nth adaptation of a story about Count Dracula and, regardless of what can be written about the movie, it delivers precisely what it promises - another entertaining "over-the-top" Cage performance in a fun comedy about Dracula's "familiar" breaking free from his abusive relationship.
Whenever a new movie is released every week, there are usually a considerable number of generic reviews published that seem merely rehashes of past articles about other flicks. I often feel like I'm reading/listening to someone going through a checklist of dozens of commonly mentioned categories and choosing a couple of superficial adjectives to describe the "quality" of each one. It's not something difficult to do, as all you have to change are details – like the movie's title, and the names of the characters, cast, and crew. In fact, it's so easy to fall into this "trap" that there are no journalists who have never done this.
Renfield is another of these films that evokes these ordinary reviews. Ryan Ridley's screenplay follows a predictable, formulaic path, elevated mianly by the portrayals of a cast 200% dedicated to the cause, and a set of technical elements – quick editing, significant amounts of gore, and numerous stunts – that make the action entertaining. Director Chris McKay (also of The Tomorrow War) demonstrates firm vision, never turning his flick into something more than what it really is, nor taking too much precaution to the point of losing the original script's intention.
Cage remains at the top of the throne of "OTT performances" with his role as Dracula in this movie, but Nicholas Hoult also deserves to be praised for keeping up with the incessantly chaotic atmosphere that Cage manages to create. Renfield contains more action and comedy than anyhorror, as the latter component is found mixed in between the other two. The reliance on quick cuts to "protect" the different blood types – CGI at times, practical at others– generates a lack of balance in the multiple set pieces, hiding the excellent stunts and making the action difficult to follow.
See? These last two paragraphs could be tweaked and applied to many other flicks by merely changing the names of the people involved. Obviously, everything I wrote above about Renfield is what I think and is still "my truth", my experience with the movie. The technical aspects can satisfy half the room and disappoint the other, so subjectivity is always present in any opinion about any film. Then, why write this review?
Well, I'd like to focus on two topics. The first is related to movies that offer precisely what they are selling, a phrase I included at the beginning of the article. How much should one praise a film where premise is transferred to the big screen just as the writer & director envisioned? If, as a viewer, expectations are met, how can I not consider the movie a success? Obviously, there's the other side of the coin: if expectations aren't that positive from the get-go and these are also matched, "success" is certainly not the ideal word that I would use to describe the film.
Let me get back to Renfield and the expectations I had for this movie. Personally, I anticipated about an hour and a half of silly entertainment without any major life lessons or in-depth thematic studies. I expected an out-of-control Cage doing what he knows best and which marked his memorable career. I counted on a cast that could keep up with Cage in his extravagance, as well as action sequences filled with so much blood that it would be difficult to see what was going on at certain moments. And I received all this…
Conclusion: a satisfying viewing. Nothing more, nothing less. It's strange to observe incredibly extrapolated reactions around social media as if Renfield is a movie existing within a certain context that results in a debate over whether it's one of the best or worst films of the year. There are cases – far too many – in which distributors and studios try to sell a movie for something it isn't through misleading marketing campaigns. However, in all other scenarios, viewers who fail to set realistic expectations are the ones to blame, not the filmmakers who simply made the film they intended.
The second topic concerns comedic approaches to sensitive subject matters. In Renfield's case, the toxicity, abuse, and trauma of co-dependent relationships are portrayed in very much the same way as the rest of the movie. With both excess and lightness, this is an issue that induces immense discussion and is inherently linked to one of the biggest debates in comedy: can we joke about everything and everyone? My two cents: I defend that what matters is the target of the joke, not the topic of the joke itself, in addition to the context surrounding it, which is why I can both laugh at a joke about the Holocaust and find another distasteful.
However, what matters above all else is compassion and respect for those around us. Not everyone has the ability to face the obstacles life throws at them with a smile on their face. Man are simply uncomfortable laughing about traumatic events, health-related situations, or other sensitive matters that impact them personally, which is completely natural and understandable. I believe we've all had moments when someone jokes about something we consider serious and important, and have ended up feeling offended…
The difference with films like Renfield is that viewers have freedom of choice, just like in stand-up shows, socializing with friends, or activities where there are other options to choose from. No one is obligated to go to the theater and watch a consciously absurd story about the complicated relationship between Dracula and Renfield that never takes itself seriously nor tries to be an essential study of its main theme. There are plenty of other movies with this purpose and these are the ones you should go see if you want to be inspired by a complex, intricate, careful narrative.
That said, criticizing Renfield for not exploring a sensitive subject matter that it never, at any point during its development, intended to examine is the equivalent of criticizing a film that actually does examine that subject sensitively for not having enough "popcorn entertainment" either. Neither argument makes sense, as expectations for both flicks are misaligned. I hope this admittedly different review helps you decide whether Renfield is the kind of movie you'd want to see in a theater or not, but also makes you want to comment on these issues that I've tried to address as honestly as I could.
Chris McKay's Renfield is yet another movie that provides precisely what it promises – with an unbelievably ridiculous, purposefully silly story about the toxic relationship between Dracula and Renfield, expectedly elevated by the "OTT King" Nicolas Cage and an up-to-the-challenge Nicholas Hoult. The light, humorous environment leaves space for action sequences that are also intentionally excessive in all technical elements, which makes the entertainment levels inconsistent due to the continuous blend of quick cuts and outrageous amounts of blood. The dedication of the stunt team deserved better and much more screen time. Still, if you're a Cage fan, you won't be disappointed.
Manuel's Rating: B-
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