Closing in on a decade since the end of his career as a mainstream star of studio movies, Nicolas Cage shows little sign of either slowing down his prodigious output or retreating into character-actor roles. If anything, he’s barreling ahead faster than ever, sometimes logging as many as three or four starring roles a year. As Cage burns through so much genre fare, sometimes something inspired sneaks through. Movies like Mom And Dad or The Trust are rarer than they should be, but they arrive often enough to inspire hope for the likes of Looking Glass, a thriller in which Ray (Cage) discovers that a room in the motel he has recently purchased has a secret two-way mirror.
This sounds sleazy. In reality, Looking Glass aspires both to sleaziness and to form a thought-provoking, soul-searching relationship with sleaze. Ray does indeed witness several sexual situations after he discovers the mirror, but the movie never really digs into his status as a voyeur, besides one character asking him if he is one. He doesn’t seem to know, and neither does Looking Glass. Ray arrives at this Arizona motel with his wife, Maggie (Robin Tunney), gamely attempting a fresh start away from their dead-kid backstory. This hoary trope is revealed almost immediately, but Cage, Tunney, and the movie around them do a nice job of not overplaying that angle—until they don’t, and the movie flies into histrionics.
Before then, and even for a little while after, Looking Glass builds promisingly. Cage, bearded and clad mostly in flannel, is in a compelling (but not sleepwalking) low-key mode. The motel signage gives off an appropriately noirish glow. The electronic score by Mark Adler and Kristin Gundred pulses. And the mysteries steadily accumulate: Why does the previous owner seem so eager to ditch his motel? Why do so many of the motel’s regulars insist on staying in room number 10? Why does this have multiple regulars and few other guests? Why does the sheriff (Marc Blucas) seem both chummy with and intensely suspicious of Ray? And why does the movie start losing tension after it introduces a murder mystery of sorts?
For a lot of late-period Cage thrillers, the answer to that last question is “Because this is direct-to-video-quality garbage shot on the cheap in Louisiana or possibly Bulgaria.” Looking Glass could surely use juicier character actors in its smaller roles—everyone besides Cage, Tunney, and Blucas is pretty stilted—but its pedigree isn’t bad and its production isn’t so low-rent. Director Tim Hunter is a TV veteran with credits on dozens of series, including many that seem relevant to the neon-lit, desert-adjacent mysteries of Looking Glass: Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, Riverdale, American Horror Story.
It’s probably not fair, then, to speculate about what Cage’s Snake Eyes director, Brian De Palma, could have done with this material, especially because the pragmatic answer is, probably produce two or three brilliant set pieces and then fizzle out in a way not dissimilar to how Hunter’s version does. This particular story depends far too much on withholding information, then releasing some of it through a character who has remained conveniently absent (and much asked-after) for most of the running time.
Because Hunter’s movie works best in its early, less crazed stretch, there aren’t any really memorable sequences here coming from the director or his distinctive star. For anyone keeping tabs on Cage freak-outs, he has a pretty good one in a bar, reminiscent of his fumbling, inarticulate, mostly illegal investigations in the Wicker Man remake. Irony trawlers looking for a new how’d-it-get-burned will be disappointed, though; the scene is weird and funny, but not insane. More sincere Cage fans will just sigh, take mild solace in his avoiding yet another low-rent revenge thriller, and hope for the best next time around. Despite his presence and the movie’s atmosphere, Looking Glass is just another murder mystery without enough suspects.