'Mandy': Nicolas Cage goes crazy, as only Nicolas Cage does
“Mandy” rewards the patient viewer. It’s cut into two distinct halves - with a chainsaw? Maybe - the first being a blissful haze of sorts, and the second mostly fraught with the clarity that comes with extreme grief, pain and rage.
Nicolas Cage is the character experiencing that extreme grief, pain and rage, and there’s no debating his commitment to expressing grief, pain and rage as only Nicolas Cage can express grief, pain and rage. That is, with eyes wide and delirious and mouth slack with disbelief or teeth clenched with anguish. There’s a scene where he howls and slugs down great gulletfuls of vodka, and I thought of his “Leaving Las Vegas” character declaring himself “the kling klang king of the rim-ram room.” I thought of his corrupt drug-addicted detective in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” seeing alligators where there were none. I thought of his ridiculous and entertaining performances in any number of ridiculous but lousy movies such as “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” and “Ghost Rider.”
There’s no doubt he’s challenging himself with “Mandy,” which demands a physical performance and very little recitation of dialogue. His character, Red Miller, has a job chainsawing trees in the dark. He’s in love with Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), who has a scar under her left eye and long, black Mona Lisa hair. She’s photographed as ethereal and angelic, an eerie, ghostly, pale alien. Director Panos Cosmatos plays with lighting effects so she appears to be transparent in bed next to big Red.
In fact, Cosmatos renders the entire first act in what I perceived to be the unreality of romance. His setting is, per the subtitles, “The Shadow Mountains, 1983 A.D.” It could be in the Pacific Northwest, or another planet for all I could tell. Red and Mandy live in what’s best described as an artisanal cabin. Nearby is Crystal Lake, and if you get the reference, ding, collect your prize. It’s so remote, their bedroom is made entirely of glass - all the easier to see the gold and purple glow of the impossibly brilliant cosmos above them. The light around them keeps shimmering and refracting, saturating shots and setpieces with unreal shades of red or blue. It’s a bubble ripe to be burst.
Enter the “Children of the New Dawn.” They appear in an improbable fog in a van with red devil-eyed headlights. Their leader is Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a charismatic loon I like to call Iggy Koresh. He spies Mandy walking to work one day and decides he must have her for various mystical-demonic reasons, the details of which were lost on me. The details really don’t matter, though - the film is all about stoking the ire of Nicolas God Damn Cage so he can showcase his great and wild eccentricity. It’s also about Cosmatos attempting to match his star’s lunacy with aural, visual, tonal and thematic madness. The point appears to be indulgent provocation.
The director proceeds to summon the spirits of many horror greats: John Carpenter, Dario Argento, David Lynch. Iggy Koresh’s weirdo cadre reminded me of the outlaw vampires led by Lance Henriksen in “Near Dark.” The evil leather-coated bikers with melted faces recall the Cenobites from “Hellraiser.” Animated dream sequences were reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi, of “Wizards” and “Fritz the Cat” fame. The way Cosmatos tests our patience with drawn-out scenes and flattened line readings brought to mind the lingering fetish-feel of Nicolas Winding-Refn (“Drive”). Cosmatos’ influences are abundant and obvious, but certainly well-chosen.
The film lingers in the first half, impressed with its own near-psychedelic overt strangeness - to call it stubbornly paced is a terrible understatement. But it rewards us in the second with some stylish, wild, splattery - and occasionally poorly edited - nonsense. So hang in there, until Cage takes narrative focus, forging a weapon that’s a scythe when it’s not a sword when it’s not an axe - it’s a sight to behold, I tell you - and vowing to hunt “Jesus freaks” without mercy.
Cosmatos chews heavily on the pulp of ’80s exploitationist trash and borrows liberally from heavy metal subculture - some dialogue sounds like a recitation of a death metal album sleeve, and one subtitle bleeds and branches like a black metal band logo.
The movie has a chintzy, low-budget approach to visuals and atmospherics, and the filmmaker clearly prefers practical effects over CGI. He twists “Mandy” into art here and there, dovetailing nicely with Cage’s ability to wring an emotional component from a blood-soaked screenplay. The film is primarily a referential shocker with smidgen doses of Satanic panic and stoner hallucinogens in its ungodly gory brew. Rummage around in the subtext and you might find an assertion that violence is more primal than sex, or nature, or even God, but the film ultimately appeals more to our guts than brains.
No MPAA rating
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Run time: 121 minutes