The Pitch: 1983 A.D., The Shadow Mountains. Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) live a quiet existence in a beautiful, entirely open-faced cabin. Red cuts down trees, Mandy paints the fantastic vistas of the sci-fi/fantasy novels she loves so much, and they hold one another in the dark nights against the terrors that plague them both. But all is not well in their idyll. There are rifts in the sky. There are strange vans in the nearby town. And Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the leader of the Children of the New Dawn, has decided he needs Mandy. He doesn’t intend to let her go, in this world or any other.
Mandy, Cage’s Fine Girl (Such a Fine Girl): Truly great Nicolas Cage performances have become such an intermittent event in the recent video-actioner phase of his career that when one comes around, it’s important to pay attention, to really savor just what a physical and uninhibited actor Cage is capable of being when he’s working with a filmmaker who knows how to harness his very particular version of energy. As it would seem, Panos Cosmatos is one such filmmaker. The Beyond the Black Rainbow director returns with Mandy, a spiraling death trip of stoned, terrified excess that refocuses the actor’s excessive theatricality into something elemental, and eventually beastly.
One of the things about Cage that’s made him such a cult hero over time, and which makes his ’90s run as a Hollywood leading man all the more inexplicable, is the raw, everything-in quality of his turns even in some pretty bad movies. (It’s why his paycheck work is especially dispiriting.) In Mandy, Cage turns Red into a true shell of a man, a being reduced to the sum total of his boundless trauma and his thirst for savage vengeance. It’s a feral performance, all spit and blood and bile, and there aren’t many performers who could deliver it without lapsing into total absurdity. Cosmatos, however, pushes this in its own curious direction, using Cage’s overabundance of passion in tableaux sometimes resonant and hilariously funny in the exact same breath. Mandy is the kind of dramatic gambit it’s almost impossible to imagine without its centerpiece, and in Cage, it finds the hellish, tenacious lifeblood it needs.
The Four Bikers of the Apocalypse: You’ve never seen anything quite like Mandy, even if its DNA is assembled in patchwork from so many pulpy, D&D friendly novels of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s like a stoner metal concept album made cinematic, a film whose dramatic and stylistic influences range from Argento to Repo Man to the exhaled haze of a bong rip lilting over dyed lightbulbs. Cosmatos’ film (co-written with Aaron Stewart-Ahn) starts weird and quickly dives face-first; while its comparatively meditative first hour takes a while to linger over Red and Mandy, those moments of serene intimacy go a long way toward lending weight to the film’s increasingly maniacal storytelling.
Where so many metal-influenced films flirt with the grotesque, Mandy bathes in it; this is a film perverse in both its buckets of blood onscreen (there are many) and in the ways in which it not only subverts religious iconography, but actively taunts it, challenges it, and occasionally even plays it for a laugh. Roache, who’s outstanding as the addled and violent false prophet Sand, is at once an affront to God and a knowing pantomime of so many people who destroy the world in God’s name. He’s a charlatan who’s existed over and over throughout history, and in Mandy‘s bizzarely mythic way, Cosmatos manages to turn the inevitable war between Red and Jeremiah into the stuff of violent arcana.
The Verdict: Mandy is destined to live forever as a cult favorite, but what’s going to set it apart from so many others is the way in which Cosmatos sustains the emotional stakes of Red’s quest through the entire film. Without them, Mandy would still be a deliriously stylish experiment in transposing the warped visual aesthetics of an acid trip to celluloid, in service of an especially brutal revenge thriller. (A revenge thriller set to a stunning, doom-tonal score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, no less.) But with them, Mandy becomes something more, and something genuinely special.
It’s not as though the film is entirely dissimilar from the pulp novels the film invokes in both style and onscreen reference; from the costume design to the unfortunate plot device that tends to spur on stories of broken men seeking revenge, Mandy is as indebted to books of tabletop gaming lore as it is to some of the experimental cinema invoked throughout. It’s an exploitation movie through and through, but it’s also an exceptionally articulate one, and one with a soul humming beneath its forcible spurts of corn syrup. It’s also a film built from demons, planetary alignments, and the minutiae of the transgressively occult. It goes without saying that it won’t be for everyone, but for a select handful of people, it’s probably going to be the best goddamn thing they’ve ever seen.