Nicolas Cage has been leaning into his inner Nicolas Cage-ness for a while now. In films both big and small (and there have been a lot more of the latter in recent years), the actor seems to subscribe to the Spinal Tap theory of acting, turning his Method weirdness knob up to eleven. Even with that said, though, nothing he’s done to date can really prepare you for the raw, unbridled insanity of his performance in director Panos Cosmatos’ crazy new heavy-metal fever dream, Mandy.
Cosmatos is the son of the late macho action auteur George P. Cosmatos — the man behind Sylvester Stallone’s one-two punch of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra. And his previous film, the psychedelic 2010 sci-fi fantasy Beyond the Black Rainbow, now seems like a calling card of sorts designed to get the attention of someone like Cage, who’s always looking to step out on the high wire. It turns out their sensibilities were made for one another.
The film starts off simply enough. Cage plays a lumberjack named Red who lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Their cabin is in the middle of a vast woodsy nowhere, where they seem to have an idyllic sort of romance comprised of quiet layabout evenings and dumb jokes (Knock, knock.Who’s there? Erik Estrada. Erik Estrada who? Erik Estrada from CHiPs.”) No, Mandy won’t be winning any screenplay Oscars, but Cosmatos has made a twisted funhouse ride that slowly builds its way to a higher plane beyond language until it becomes a sort of freaky horror nightmare. It’s the kind of extreme moviegoing experience made for midnight-movie cult worship.
Mandy is essentially a blood-soaked revenge flick, albeit one on angel dust. Red’s girlfriend is kidnapped one night and terrorized by a group of Manson-esque doomsday Jesus freaks called the Children of the New Dawn (led by an impressively creepy and Iggy Pop-looking Linus Roache), who are in cahoots with a band of drug-snorting demon bikers that look like roadies on GWAR’s “Scumdogs of the Universe” tour. Red, of course, won’t abide this violation. So the film spirals into a descent-into-hell odyssey of vengeance that involves using a crossbow nicknamed “The Reaper” whose arrows “cut through bone like a fat kid through cake” and Red dousing his wounds with vodka while screaming in his tighty whities. He also literally goes medieval, forging a battle ax to go head to head with the GWAR roadie biker demons and has a climactic chainsaw clash. There’s an element of how-weird-can-we-go-with-this-thing daredevilry to Mandy. It’s the definition of “not for everyone.” But I suspect that anyone who still hasn’t walked out of the theater after the first hour or so will be grooving on Cage and Cosmatos’ wavelength.
Whether he’s chowing down on a live cockroach in Vampire’s Kiss, or tap-dancing his way to oblivion as he fills a shopping cart with booze in Leaving Las Vegas, or just plain being good at being bad in something like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cage has proven over and over again that he can be one of our most compellingly original leading men. Is he in on the joke of his own mystique? Frankly, I have no clue…nor do I particularly care, especially when he’s going this gonzo.
Where Cage occasionally gets into trouble is when his most idiosyncratic mannerisms don’t serve the material — when he goes too big for the movie he’s in. But Mandy is a movie where it would be impossible to go too big. It’s a fully immersive experience that begs to be anchored by someone who’s lit from within by blinding neon, but who also, amidst all of the nutty squalls of genre scuzz can still wear his broken heart on his sleeve. And, these days, that list is a short one. In fact, there’s really only one name on it. Thankfully, Cosmatos found him. A-