The importance of Nicolas Cage’s facial expressions in Face/Off: an academic essay
Ivan Radford | On 05, Aug 2013Reading time: 8 mins
“I need to be able to feel everything, which is why I refuse to go on any kind of medication. Not that I need to!”
– Nic Cage talking to The Guardian.
It is a scientific fact that Nicolas Cage’s face can display 50,000 times more emotions than the average human face.
According to science, there are six universal facial expressions: Disgust, Sadness, Happiness, Fear, Anger and Surprise. Nicolas Cage can display all of these – often simultaneously. In fact, experts estimate that Nic Cage’s face is capable of approximately 300,000 expressions, beginning with the above six and extending to the myriad expressions in between.
Sad Fear. Happy Disgust. Surprised Anger. Mild Indigestion. Someone Ate My Pop Tart While I Was In The Shower. All expressions.
How is this possible?
According to science, thousands of tiny creatures live beneath the surface of Nic Cage’s skin, manipulating the tissue into shapes hitherto unimagined by mere mortals with their mere mortal faces. These creatures feed off a raw energy known as The Fury. When Nic Cage’s face displays anger, excitement, pain, angry excitement or painfully excited anger, he unleashes The Fury, fuelling the tiny creatures so they can continue to morph his face into ever more extreme expressions – thus unleashing more of The Fury.
The cycle continues. Indeed, because the tiny creatures that live beneath the surface of Nic Cage’s skin are sentient, they are constantly learning new expressions for his face to assume – more on that later. This makes the potential for his facial expressions theoretically infinite. Some even hypothesise that he can show facial expressions on the inside of his face too.
Combined with Nic Cage’s unique ability to feel everything in the universe all at the same time – a by-product of his refusal to go on any kind of medication – Nic Cage is a man bred especially for expressing himself facially. Websites have been created to document this unique phenomenon – and continue to do so.
Psychology suggests that humans can relate best to a blank face; one upon which they can project their own emotions and desires. Nic Cage’s face defies this logic, projecting emotions we were not even aware of onto itself for us to experience vicariously. It is this combination of heightened emotions and a flexible face that makes Nicolas Cage the greatest actor ever to walk the earth – and, in turn, makes Face/Off the greatest action movie of all time.
John Woo’s epic thriller explores the power of Nicolas Cage’s face both figuratively and literally. By casting Nicolas Cage in Nicolas Cage’s role, the director implicitly draws attention to Nicolas Cage’s face, but by using his face as a MacGuffin within the actual plot, he goes one step further: Nicolas Cage’s face is turned into the explicit centre of the whole movie.
When is Nicolas Cage’s face Nicolas Cage’s face? How is Nicolas Cage’s face? Why is Nicolas Cage’s face?
The film begins with Nicolas Cage in possession of Nicolas Cage’s face. He spends the time smiling wildly, unleashing The Fury an average of every 30 seconds while on screen. But soon after, he falls into a coma: his face is rendered, for the first time in history, inert. At this point, John Travolta steals his face – the source of Nic Cage’s power – and claims it as his own. Thanks to highly advanced and completely plausible surgery, John Travolta is then made to look exactly like Nic Cage. Can he, too, harness the power of Nic Cage’s face?
Nicolas Cage’s face being an organ of uncontrollable emotion, it responds, naturally, by stealing John Travolta’s face. Suddenly, John Travolta starts displaying above-average facial expressions. He laughs maniacally, opens his eyes wide and grins like a Cheshire Cat that refuses to go on any kind of medication. Nic Cage becomes Nic Cage – using someone else’s face.
This exchange of facial expressions leads to an imbalance of power; a mis-match of personality. Science tells us that The Fury cannot be contained by any man other than Nic Cage. Indeed, Vampire’s Kiss records the true power of The Fury when expressed through Nic Cage, but even he struggles to contain it at times, producing many films in which he seems to appear uninterested; a side effect of feeling everything at all times and, of course, refusing to go on any kind of medication.
Face/Off confirms this theory, as Nic Cage and John Travolta’s world descends into an extreme blend of slow-motion explosions, slow-motion running, slow-motion gun fights and slow-motion pigeons flying away from all the above – in slow motion.
Research reveals that this slowed motion is the speed at which Nic Cage perceives the world. In this way, John Woo allows us to witness the microcosmic changes that occur within Nic Cage’s face and, in turn, within all our faces. The use of mirrors at every available opportunity within the film’s darkened sets highlights the universality of Nic Cage’s face by reflecting it all around us, while subtly asking: Which face is Nic Cage’s face? How is it possible? And why is any of this happening?
“You watch your FUCKING mouth!” Nicolas Cage shouts repeatedly throughout: an order to himself to be mindful of his own face. “You look like you just fucked your mother,” another character says to John Travolta’s face (which is possessed by Nic Cage’s face).
The act of looking and watching is vital to the film’s themes, partly because it is a film and you need to watch it to see what is happening, but also because faces contain eyes and they are used for watching. The layers here are deep. Like the layers of Nic Cage’s face.
“I want to take his face… off. Eyes, nose, skin, teeth. It’s coming off,” Nicolas Cage says in the film’s pivotal scene. Of course, he uses his face to say it – a subtle reminder of the film’s hidden message.
The only way to resolve the psychological and physiological struggle between Nic Cage’s face and Nic Cage’s face is, naturally, via the medium of a speedboat chase. As Face 1 and Face 2 collide in a billowing cloud of flames and facial tissue, the two men hurtle through the air towards the riverbank.
Pause it here and look closely and you’ll notice that they look nothing like Nic Cage and John Travolta. The two men have been rendered with completely alien expressions: the climax of a confrontation between equal and opposite faces.
Finally, after the catharsis of the high-speed water-based collision, Nic Cage’s face is returned to him, and equilibrium is restored to the world. The film ends with a close up of Nic Cage’s face as he greets a young boy.
This is an echo of the opening scene, where Nic Cage’s hand runs down a child’s face, a technique used by the tiny creatures under his skin to assimilate any and all facial expressions – a moving, yet also highly disturbing, act.
Face/Off may seem on the surface like a bonkers action movie or a cautionary tale of what happens when a man tries to steal Nic Cage’s face, but it is much, much more. Its themes of ownership and borrowing preempt the global financial crisis by several years; its use of identity swapping offers a subtle satire of the two-faced nature of national security; the dramatic consequences of the operation question the moral implications of cosmetic surgery; its reliance upon pigeons as a dramatic metaphor is a comment on pest control and public safety; its depiction of a prison escape is a stern reminder of the importance of a tougher penal system. On top of all that, though, Face/Off is about faces. It is a philosophical meditation on the importance of facial expressions and the power contained within them.
Face/Off holds the mirror up to reality and reveals that reality is, in fact, Nicolas Cage’s face. Indeed, the wider realisation that Nicolas Cage is everyone occurred several years after John Woo’s masterpiece and the world has been struggling to recover since.
It is no mystery that we now regularly use Photoshop to create face-swaps between comically mismatched people – a subconscious reenactment of Face/Off. Often, we take Nic Cage’s face off and stick it onto other things, from Pokemon and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask to Disney Princesses. Why? Because of its reassuring ability to express all emotions.
You see, like Nicolas Cage, we need to be able to feel everything. But we don’t have the luxury to refuse medication: we have jobs, commitments and limited access to speedboats. It is lucky, then, that we have Nic Cage to feel everything for us; all we have to do is look at his face.
With thanks to http://facesofcage.tumblr.com/ for Nicolas Cage’s face.