Director: Panos Cosmatos
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke.
Words – Nathan Scatcherd
Mandy is probably not the film you think it is.
The trailer seems to promise an all-out, balls to the wall, grand opera Cage-ocalypse; a B-movie thrill ride with perhaps not a lot on its mind, but heavy on self-aware insanity, mostly stemming from the gonzo charms of its lead actor. And while Panos Cosmatos’ follow-up to Beyond the Black Rainbow does indeed have its fair share of classic Cage Rage moments and brief patches of coal black humour, the overall tone is not one of glorious, joyful blood-soaked fun, but rather a faint melancholia. This is perhaps the most dour, patiently paced film to ever feature a scene in which two men duel each other with chainsaws.
This may sound like a knock against the movie, but it is meant wholeheartedly as a compliment. Cosmatos is still very much a visual director, using minimal characterisation and concerning himself more with atmosphere – somewhere between Lynch and Jodorowsky – than lots of dialogue or a particularly complex narrative. The film looks amazing, like a hellish dark fantasy comic book come to life, full of deep, vivid colours and several eye-popping trip sequences.
It is, like Beyond the Black Rainbow before it, suffused with winks and nods towards pop culture Cosmatos is clearly in love with; here, it’s Dungeons and Dragons, Frank Frazetta, Clive Barker, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But the crucial decision has been made to hinge this very simple, straightforward revenge thriller/horror story not on the undeniably appealing idea of Nic Cage wielding a big axe, but instead on the agony of loss and the ultimate lonely futility of revenge.
Whereas another film would tell this same story with a gleeful, winking detachment, revelling in its own inherent silliness and allowing Cage’s well-cultivated persona to do the heavy lifting, Mandy takes the much more difficult road of injecting some actual pathos into its midnight movie trappings. It manages to deftly walk a knife’s edge between gory tongue in cheek excess and unexpectedly poignant emotional beats, and most of this is down to Cage’s absolutely assured performance.
He is Red Miller, a lumberjack living in the Mojave Shadow Mountains with his wife (a haunted, doomed Andrea Riseborough – the titular Mandy). A very Manson-esque cult led by the megalomaniacal Jeremiah Sand (played by Linus Roache, absolutely oozing off the screen) try and fail to indoctrinate Mandy into their number, and when she embarrasses Sand, he responds with horrific action of the occult, witnessed by Red.
The sad-eyed, bruised man-bear affect Cage gives the character in the film’s opening stretch snaps entirely; a switch is flipped and he becomes the very personification of unhinged, single-minded vengeance, pausing briefly on his warpath only to pick up more weapons, snort coke or drop acid.
However, the film is never overtaken by its central performance. Cage modulates himself with real skill, matching the film’s baroque fantasy setting rather than distracting from it; living and breathing inside this surreal world rather than unmooring it.
Everything is heightened, from the colours to the music to the staging, and what may at first seem like stunt casting makes perfect sense in context – Cage is simply the one actor around who could convincingly make this performance work in the exact way it needs to. He is furious, sad, tired, racked with anguish; an extended scene in which he downs a bottle of vodka while screaming and crying hysterically plays initially as slightly funny, especially considering he is at the time wearing a pair of tight briefs and a t-shirt emblazoned with a tiger’s face. Then it turns horrifying, Cage’s convulsive physicality really selling just how much of a wreck this guy is, before finally becoming simply a little upsetting, and ironically sobering, as we see him move from heartbroken grief to apoplectic rage and back again in two minutes. He is fantastic in this movie, and not in the kind of ‘ironic’ way he and his performances generally seem to be perceived nowadays.
Of course a lot of viewers will be drawn to the film purely because of his involvement, expecting something on the level of Vampire’s Kiss or Deadfall in the ‘Nic Cage off the chain’ stakes. Hopefully that wins the film a few fans who wouldn’t have thought to watch it otherwise, and hopefully audiences will judge Mandy on what it is, rather than what they are expecting (or, far worse, feel entitled to) based on the trailer.
Either way, it feels destined to become a cult classic and, judging from the extremely enthusiastic audience I saw the film with, it has already very much found its acolytes.
Mandy is probably not the film you think it is. It’s even better.