Nicolas Cage is a true enigma of a human being. He is endlessly lampooned, idolized, studied, quoted, and ironically loved to the point where it is no longer ironic. Montages of the actor “losing his shit” or just straight freaking out onscreen have garnered over a million views, and there was even an episode of Community where Abed loses his mind after watching too many Nicolas Cage films in an attempt to discern if the man is good or bad (he’s….both?). Love him or hate him, Nicolas Cage is a devastating force of nature, and Mandy is his magnum opus.
Set in the quiet wilderness in the year 1983, Mandy tells the tragic tale of Red Miller (Cage) and his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). The two live in seclusion and happiness together, until one day Mandy catches the eye of the unhinged, pompous cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), who, along with his brainwashed followers, takes her away from Red to keep her as his slave. Red, maimed, broken, and left for dead, channels his loss, pain, anger, and sorrow into a drive for revenge, beginning a bloody rampage.
Director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) delivers an utter masterpiece, fully leaning into a unique aesthetic and atmosphere that is so strongly profound that it’s shocking to realize that this is only his second film. This is a movie that prompted a five minute long standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. Mandy is a true work of art, plain and simple. Bathed in deep shades of crimson and violet throughout, the film pulls you into its hallucinatory, LSD-fueled world. It’s a story told mainly through visuals and sounds rather than dialogue, and every frame looks like an old Polaroid photograph, with lens flare and blurred details.
Moments are allowed to linger (the relationship between Red and Mandy is established through glimpsing random moments of the two spending time together at home and out in nature), sitting on shots for what is sometimes an uncomfortable amount of time. The beauty of the setting at the start of the film juxtaposes with the violent, disgusting carnage that is to come. The score, the final work from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners) before his untimely death, is a blast of full-on 80s atmospheric synth. It’s haunting, beautiful, and bombastic all at once. Mandy is a master class in style, taking ultimate advantage of the fact that film is primarily a visual medium. Scenes take place in pulsing light, returning to and from darkness. Others are only backlit, the characters nothing but silhouettes. When Mandy has drugs forcibly injected into her, the film takes the terrifying trip with her; voices echo, movements are blurred, stalled, and leave after-images, and everything is viewed as if through a slow, trippy haze. The whole thing is incredibly artsy. For God’s sake, the title card (looking like a death metal band’s logo) doesn’t even appear until an hour and fifteen minutes in, and all of Red’s dreams are told through animated segments.
Cosmatos plays to Nicolas Cage’s greatest strengths in every scene, unleashing the eclectic actor and giving him the space to do what he does best. Nic Cage is a maniac, there’s no denying that, but his mania, from an acting standpoint, is to be admired rather than deride. He is an actor that goes headfirst into hysteria, fully committing to whatever choices he’s decided to make for a scene, and that boldness is rewarded in Mandy. This is a film where Nic Cage pours vodka onto his open wounds, screaming in agony and shouting at the ceiling before chugging half of the bottle himself. In that same scene, the camera hangs on to a shot of the man sitting on the toilet, sobbing, moaning, and continuing to drink the vodka. Later, he snaps a man’s neck and then immediately snorts an enormous chunk of cocaine. Before that, he slits someone’s throat and laughs as the blood pours onto his face. The second half of Mandy is nothing but Red Miller’s murderous, crazed rampage of revenge, and Cage’s insane screams and facial expressions are used to their best effect. While, yes, you may be able to laugh as he engages in truly psychotic moments, you can’t help but marvel at the braveness and total mayhem that is a Nic Cage performance. You will be incomplete awe of him in this film. Cosmatos found a way to cater to the actor’s unique brand of insanity, sadness, and anger.
With all of this Nic Cage talk, you would think he is the dominant force of the entire movie. But this actually isn’t so; Andrea Riseborough (Black Mirror, Birdman, Oblivion) as the titular character is actually in charge for the entire first half of the film. She delivers an otherworldly performance (early on, Mandy and Red discuss what their favorite planets are). There is pain, melancholy, and wisdom behind her eyes, and the looks she gives directly to the camera are achingly haunting. Mandy is a confident woman who rocks Black Sabbath and Mötley Crüe shirts all day, watches cheap horror films with her husband at night, and is completely at home in the remote wilderness of the couple’s homestead. When she is kidnapped by Jeremiah, instead of playing the role of the helpless object to be rescued, she stays strong, ridiculing and mocking the crazed cult leader, even through her drug-induced haze.
Linus Roache (Batman Begins, Non-Stop) plays Jeremiah with an insanely creepy aura of self-importance and dominance, intimidating his followers into doing his bidding and making grand, sweeping statements about his path being the only true one to salvation. “Do you know Jesus’ one mistake? He didn’t send a sacrifice in his stead.” he claims as he tortures Red, cutting him open and forcing him to watch pain inflicted to his wife. Roache showcases extreme and untouchable ego, but when Mandy is unfazed by him and belittles him, as well as when Red returns for revenge, he’s able to be reduced rather quickly into a panicked, blubbering mess, stripping him of his power and revealing just how small he really is (despite living under a giant pyramid decorated with a cross).
Mandy is a violent, beautiful, deranged, and haunting work of art. The final shots will leave you in wonder and reflection, and the previous two hours will have felt like both a good and bad drug trip. It is a tragic tale of loss, anger, sadness, revenge, and euphoria. You root for Red’s justifiable killing streak, but mourn for the death of the gentle man he once was. Cosmatos and Cage put it all on the table, showing our leading man at his most vulnerable and broken. Every shot of Cage’s face paints a picture of the deep sorrow and rage his character feels. The red that permeates the world of Mandy soaks through the screen, symbolizing the darkness and carnage that comes to pass. This is a film where Nicolas Cage gets into a chainsaw fight with a literal demonic biker gang, and if that doesn’t get you to see it, nothing will. This is one of the best movies of the year.
4.5 / 5 Stars
Mandy is now playing in select theaters nationwide and is also available on Amazon Prime Video.