Nicolas Cage deserves more respect than he gets. Forget the YouTube highlight reels and the memes and consider the scope of his acting career. He’s done everything from chart-topping Hollywood blockbusters to Redbox/Netflix throwaway quickies without ever lapsing into predictability. He remains willing to take chances and go for broke in ways that actors of similar commercial stature would be afraid to do. Unpredictable, sincere eccentricity is his brand and it ensures he’s always interesting to watch. You may marvel or sneer but you can’t look away.
When Cage gets a project worthy of his daredevil ways, the results can be downright hypnotic… and that’s the perfect description for Mandy. It’s the brainchild of Panos Cosmatos, who previously stunned cult film fans with Beyond The Black Rainbow, and it’s a horror-themed revenge story told in a uniquely lysergic style.
When reduced to a synopsis, the film’s premise is as simple as it gets: Red Miller (Cage) lives a peaceful life in the woods with his fantasy novel-obsessed love, Mandy (Andrea Risebrough). Their union is shattered when she attracts the attention of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), the leader of a demonically-inclined cult. They invade Red and Mandy’s home, leaving her dead and Red drowning in anguish. He suits up for revenge, taking on the cult and the demonic forces they summon up.
However, a mere synopsis can’t describe how a film feels and it is important to note that Mandy is as much an experience as it is a story. Drawing from both the horror genre and avant-garde cinema, Cosmatos weaves a spell that is sinister and wondrous all at once. Imagine if David Lynch took the imagery you see on heavy metal album covers from the ’80s (pointedly, the film is set in 1983) and wove it into an elemental tale of horror and revenge. It hits the expected points of brutality and suspense but does so from its own distinctive angle.
And that’s just the scratching the surface with Mandy. Using a neon-psychedelic style of lighting and a Johann Johannson musical score that could be described as “ambient progressive death-rock,” Cosmatos conjures up a ambience that makes you feel like you’ve been drugged. Even the moments of splattery ultraviolence in the second half have a psyched-out, acid flashback quality to them. Cosmatos gives his brain-altering stew a deliberately slow pace so the viewer can sink into the deep-dish bizarro atmosphere it generates. You don’t just watch this film, you swim in it.
Fittingly, the script is stylized to accompany the film’s mood. The dialogue has an overripe, pulpy quality to it and the film’s creep factor is offset by moments of offbeat humor (look out for a unique kid-oriented commercial that pops up on the television). All the expected narrative beats for a horror/revenge film are there but the magic lies in the curious way they are laid out.
Similarly, the style of performance here is designed to match the film’s odd ebb and flow, with the cast either using a dreamlike, matter-of-fact approach to quirky dialogue or putting the pedal to the metal with bombast. For example, Risebrough – who plays the most lustrous metal chick ever in a movie here – favors the former style primarily while Roache leans heavily toward the pedal/metal end of the spectrum. Some have noted he seems to be channeling Richard Lynch as the cult leader and that’s pretty spot-on. Look out also from a cameo from the great Bill Duke in a brief role as a fellow loner who provides some material aid to Red in his quest for vengeance.
That said, if there is a senior partner amongst the cast it is definitely Cage. He starts in a subdued style but once his character is pushed to the brink, he unleashes the wild theatrics he became (in)famous after Vampire’s Kiss. However, the effect is different here because Cosmatos gives him such a unique backdrop for his thespian wildness. The two seem to feed off each other: Cage keeps Cosmatos’ flights of fancy from drifting off into the ether while Cosmatos’ brand of fractured-psyche dreamscape gives Cage the artistic license he needs to work his operatic mojo.
In short, Mandy is the results of a match made in horror-metal-surrealist heaven. Cosmatos and Cage harmonize their offbeat artistic voices to synthesize a gonzo arthouse/schlock-horror hybrid that takes your brain cells by storm – and it will go down in the history of Cage’s unique career as a peak moment of “Maximum Cage.”