Nicolas Cage films have come to exist as a kind of seat-filling Catch 22.
Many punters across the world adore the pumped-up, punk-rock intensity of a big Cage performance and purchase tickets because he is the star. Fans flock to the multiplex knowing scenery will be chewed and explosions will be walked away from. Laughter and stares are maniacal, with both always lingering a bit too long for comfort. Conversely, some would rather bathe in raw sewage than pay to watch Cage launch into another on-screen frenzy, considering they can only see him go over-the-top so many times before topping themselves.
Almost four decades into his career, Cage is still a memorable screen presence. Yet with notable exceptions, such as his eponymous lead in David Gordon Green’s Joe (2013), his appearances have long lacked the heartbreaking poignancy and thoughtful nuance of his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), in which he portrayed an alcoholic screenwriter who travels to the titular Nevada city to drink himself to death. This lack of subtlety is not always a bad thing, with the recent likes of horror comedy Mom And Dad (2017) proving broad can still be beautiful. But now Mandy finally arrives in the UK following raves at Sundance and Cannes festivals, which Cage will we get?
As it happens, we get a triumphant, roaring Cage greatest hits that’s only one of the many reasons to recommend this joyous, psychedelic folk-horror romp.
It’s 1983 in the Pacific North-West and taciturn lumberjack Red (Cage) leads a chilled life in a lakeside log cabin with his beloved squeeze Mandy (a serene Andrea Riseborough). We learn little of certainty about Mandy but are given clues to her character. The facial scar suggests she’s escaped a violent past, presumably part of the reason she and Red live a quiet life in the wilderness. The fantasy novels she reads alone in the bedroom suggest a mind open to adventure. The Mötley Crüe and Black Sabbath t-shirts she wears? Perhaps no more than a love of raucous rock. Soon, a Winnebago of grimy cultists led by the enigmatic and imperious Jeremiah Sand (a monstrously sleazy Linus Roache) trundles by. Sand demands his disciples kidnap Mandy with the help of three demonic bikers before things turn awry and Red seeks revenge, his idyllic life torn asunder.
Mandy is not for everyone. Frequent blood-letting, defiantly unerotic full frontal nudity and forced drug-taking matter little to horror fans but may turn some off. Regardless, director Panos Cosmatos, who devised the story and co-wrote his script with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, has taken a leap forward in quality with this second feature. His debut, Beyond The Black Rainbow, was another 1983-set oddity about a woman held against her will by a strange cult. While that sci-fi puzzler looked and sounded superb, its pace dragged, despite being 10 minutes shorter than Mandy’s two-hour running time. This time, while the first half is again all set-up, rarely a shot is wasted. Vivid scenes throb and fade with deep bloody reds, incandescent oranges and lush verdant greens, while the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s extraordinary score is melliflous synths one minute, doom-metal bombast the next.
For the many who came for Cage, there’s no disappointment. We see brooding, intense Cage. We see helpless, bound-by-a-barbed-wire-crown Cage (surely a Christ reference in a film that seems to hint at biblical themes and imagery). We even see weeping, Vodka-quaffing Cage. Things ramp up with a mismatched chainsaw duel that nods to Tobe Hooper. It could even be one of many visual echoes of the fantasy tales Mandy reads: heroism in the face of grueling adversity. There’s also suits of armour, gravel-voiced talk of God and Cage forging the sort of ornate axe one expects to see in Game Of Thrones. It is put to vicious use.
While the bare bones of his film’s plot lacks originality and suggests little more than a woodlands revenge saga, Cosmatos delivers one of the most satisfying and entertaining releases of the year. It shares a drugged and delirious tone with Gaspar Noé’s Climax, while the Cage film it most recalls is David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990). Even if this one is wild all over.
Mandy is a hectic, outrageously fun film that’s ideal for a great night out – like its chemical namesake albeit without the grueling comedown.
Mandy opens in cinemas on 12 October