As anyone who works as a film critic or journalist can attest, Nicolas Cage has starred for years now in a seemingly endless succession of movies that have gone largely straight to VOD or home video (with a few exceptions, and even those were not exactly wide releases). The projects have ranged from incompetent faith-based conspiracy thrillers (Left Behind) to somewhat more competent horror thrillers (Mom and Dad). But very few of them are going to be spoken about in the same breath as Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation, two of this eccentric actor’s finest achievements, let alone a peak action classic like Face/Off.
But even if his latest film, Mandy, doesn’t exactly herald a Cage renaissance (Nicolassance?), it’s a cut above the usual mediocre-to-unwatchable fare he’s been turning up in. Mandy is directed and co-written (with Aaron Stewart-Ahn) by Italian-Swedish filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, who caused a stir in 2010 with Beyond the Black Rainbow, a psychedelic horror/sci-fi hybrid that tried to out-Cronenberg such early works by that Canadian maverick as Shivers, Crimes of the Future, and Videodrome. It was a success purely on style and stunning visuals alone, although its plot or lack thereof and disorientingly cold ambience proved divisive.
Eight years later, Cosmatos is still more concerned with imagery and atmosphere than anything else, but at least Mandy’s story is much more straightforward than that of Beyond the Black Rainbow even if takes a slow, hallucinogenic two hours to relay it. And he pulls a truly human and painful performance out of Cage as a man whose sense of personal tranquility is brutally and abruptly shattered, mutating from heartbreak to savagery in what can only be termed an epically Cagey arc that keeps the actor vulnerable even as he turns into a killing machine.
Cage plays Red Miller, a logger who lives in a secluded house in eastern California’s Shadow Mountains with the love of his life, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), in the year 1983. Their peaceful life together is shattered when Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the leader of a depraved cult, takes a shine to Mandy after seeing her out for a walk. The cult — with the aid of a clutch of black-clad, masked bikers who may not be quite human — invade the couple’s home and begin a night of horror that in turn sets Miller on a path of equally horrific violence and vengeance.
Mandy is a tremendously violent film, at times excruciatingly so, but it is filtered through Cosmatos’ surreal, dream-like lens, which turns the sky blood red and the forest around the Miller home into a glowing, ominous living thing. Somehow, however, despite its protracted pace (perhaps intended to recreate the effects of the drugs that both the cult and later Red consume), it manages to keep you transfixed thanks to some strikingly beautiful images and Red’s all-consuming agony. In one scene, Cosmatos keeps the camera still and fixed while the actor goes through an extraordinary paroxysm of grief as he bounces off the confines of a bathroom and drinks from a bottle of vodka.
Mandy’s unconventional approach to the most basic of narratives may try one’s patience (the film can be self-consciously too pretentious for its own good) and the movie runs too long by half an hour for this kind of material. But it can be a bracing watch if you’re game and serves as a reminder that Cage can still deliver the gonzo goods as an actor even in a psychotronic art-exploitation mind-fuck like this. Or maybe he just needs to do more of these until the Nicolassance really does happen.
Mandy is out in theaters tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 14).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye