Here’s something you don’t hear too often these days: "You’ve got to see the new Nic Cage movie!"
The wild actor's latest is “Mandy,” an extremely metal new horror-thriller with a dirt-simple plot and a grotesque, psychedelic style. It might be trash, but it’s as artfully made as trash gets.
Set in the Shadow Mountains in 1983, "Mandy" is about a logger named Red (Cage) and his girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), who live in a cabin near the lake. They have a bit of an age gap, but they’re soulmates nonetheless. They like to lie in bed and talk about their favorite planets.
Their idyllic existence is shattered, however, when a prissy cult leader name Jeremiah (Linus Roache) and his band of psychos roll into the area. With the help of a mutant biker gang called the Black Skulls, Jeremiah kidnaps Mandy and leaves Red for dead.
This all takes a bit over an hour. The setup is, to put it mildly, deliberately paced. The plot just oozes on by, inch by inch.
But then the second half of the film gets here. And Cage, whose performance has been relatively restrained up to this point, cranks it up to 12 (Cage goes up to 12, not 11). In turn, the movie becomes a bloody, punishing and fast-paced revenge thriller.
After a scantily clad bout of rage-crying in the bathroom, Cage licks his wounds, grabs his crossbow and forges an ax that looks like a weapon straight off the book jacket of an ’80s fantasy novel. He's off to kill the the cultists and mutant bikers who ruined his life.
The bad guys are about as vile and contemptible as movie villains get, and their deaths are appropriately savage: Decapitations, throat-slashings, neck snaps. A man’s head is squeezed until his eyeballs pop out. Nic Cage and another guy get into a duel with chainsaws, and the gory punchline is as vomitous as you’d hope.
Did I mention “Mandy” isn’t for everyone?
The film comes from Panos Cosmatos, director of “Beyond the Black Rainbow” and son of Hollywood journeyman George P. Cosmatos, director of such action classics as “Cobra,” “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Tombstone.”
The younger Cosmatos makes movies that wouldn’t feel out of place during his late father’s heyday. For “Mandy,” he fuses the glacial pace of a Tarkovsky film with the sounds, visuals and grotesque humor of a “Metalocalypse” episode. The result is an audiovisual descent into madness that's unlike anything I've seen before.
If you went back in time to the early '90s and walked into a Blockbuster, "Mandy" is the movie they have one copy of. They've put it in the special interest section because no one knows how to classify it. They're thinking about shedding the tape from their collection, but that one weird guy checks it out every few weeks, so they keep it.
"Mandy's" aesthetic is a gnarly fusion of the brutal and the beautiful. This can be felt in its solar-plexus-rattling score (one of the last by the late composer Johannes Johansson). And it can be felt in the heavy metal fonts used throughout the film. And in the opening credits sequence set to King Crimson’s “Starless.” It can be seen in the phantasmagoria Cage drives through in the final act.
The glacial pace of the first half and the putridly gory violence of the whole film will turn off the majority of viewers. But not all. And there are some objectively great things about the film, love it or hate it:
1. "Mandy" is beautiful. The color palette is lurid and uber-saturated, leading to an atmosphere from a different era, perhaps even a different planet. (This was achieved using an Arri Alexa camera paired with the Panavision anamorphic format.) Oh, also about 10 minutes of this movie is a collection of animated dream sequences. The point of “Mandy” is to make you feel like you’re on an acid trip while listening to a metal power ballad on a loop. In a your parents' wood-paneled basement, the year 1983.
2. "Mandy" is insane. Some things you’ll see in “Mandy”:
» An opening title card that doesn’t come in until the 75-minute mark(!).
» A fake TV ad for a fake macaroni and cheese brand called Cheddar Goblin that is simultaneously the funniest and most disturbing moment in the movie.
» A monster man with a giant knife for a phallus.
» A tiger.
» And as mentioned, Nic Cage, drenched in the blood of his enemies, fighting in a chainsaw duel.
3. "Mandy" is Nic Cage. Cage hasn’t been in a movie this good since at least 2009’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” or perhaps even 2002’s “Adaptation.”
The majority of Cage’s work over the last decade has gone straight to video-on-demand (“Mandy” is getting a simultaneous VOD/theatrical release). Most of his later work has been nuts, but not in that good way. Neither the films nor the actor have been worth watching for a long time.
In “Mandy,” Cage gives as bonkers a performance as he’s ever given. And yet he leavens the madness with a sense of humanity we haven’t seen from him in far too long.
When he’s not screaming or lighting a cigarette with the flaming decapitated head of his enemy, Cage is grieving. And if you can see past the gag-inducing gore, the cartoon interludes and the Satanic imagery, you’ll find a heartbreaking story about a man so consumed with loss and rage that he morphs into a monstrous avenging angel just to keep going.
Cage plumbs depths of emotion that most actors (particularly movie stars) would be loathe to tap into. He's always on the edge of slipping into self-parody, and this makes him both the best actor and worst actor we have. Because his best acting and worst acting are really only a few inches apart, and the secret to a great Cage performance is 1. Finding the right role in the right movie and 2. Keeping Cage on the right side of the best/worst acting divide. (Cage has lived on that line his whole career).
In “Mandy,” Cage gives a performance only he could pull off: campy and absurd but also grounded and gut-wrenching. "Mandy" couldn't exist without him.
* * *
Best Cage performances
2. “Leaving Las Vegas”
3. “Raising Arizona”
7. “Wild at Heart”
8. “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”
9. “The Rock”
10. “Bringing Out the Dead”