In a rant from earlier this year, I noted how there are few filmic pleasures equivalent to seeing Nicolas Cage lose his mind in a performance. Oftentimes, an unhinged Cage is the only thing making dreck like The Humanity Bureau worth suffering through. Therefore, it’s cause for celebration when, in a single year, the world is treated to two showcases of prime Rage Cage contained within quality films of their own rights.
Mandy, the latest by Italian writer / director Panos Cosmatos, more than delivers the manic Cage fix promised in its trailers and yet is first and foremost one of the year’s best films, a hallucinatory revenge tale of staggering beauty and exuberant bloodshed. It’s a vengeance saga distorted beyond recognition into a hypnotic nightmare, one that ultimately descends into a grindhouse exercise where Cage snorts massive amounts of cocaine and dismembers demons with a chainsaw. Basically: a masterpiece.
The plot is perversely simple. Red Miller (Cage) and his girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (an unrecognizable Andrea Riseborough), live a fairy-tale existence near the Shadow Mountains in their impeccably furnished cabin. Theirs is a simple life of pillow talk and longing gazes until a cult leader eyes Mandy as his next Satan slave (or whatever) and summons a trio of motorcycle-riding demons from hell to kidnap and deliver her to his lair. Cage is strung up with barbed wire and left for dead. After regaining his senses, however, he welds himself a sweet-looking axe and goes huntin’.
Mandy’s most striking and instantly noticeable asset is its ethereal visual palette, filled with deep red fogs, neon lighting and the occasional animated segment. Still, what the film primarily evokes is the spirit of a heavy metal album cover straight out of the Iron Maiden ‘80s. That essence is distilled with such clarity that it will likely be received with the same cult reverence by headbangers as 1984’s Repo Man was by hardcore kids. It’s impossible to overstate the lunacy that results from the influences Cosmatos so proudly flaunts (imagine a King Crimson music video directed by and starring the Hellraiser Cenobites), and thanks to his artistry behind the camera it feels mesmerizing rather than juvenile.
While the movie is split into three different segments (each introduced with its own title card), it’s the first and second halves that feel tonally distinct from one another. The initial 50 minutes is what might happen if Nicolas Winding Refn took the first 10 minutes of The Crow and stretched it into an arthouse fever dream. Those who can engage its languid atmosphere will find themselves alternately unsettled and awestruck by its doom-laden grandeur.
That early stretch may strive for the unhurried, drone metal of a Sunn O))) record, but once Cage embarks on his demon vendetta, the pace dials up to the breakneck thrash of a Slayer jam. Just before the carnage starts, there’s a single-take sequence in which a grieving Cage, clad in tightie-whities, strides across his bathroom, chugging a fifth of vodka and only pausing to let out the occasional guttural scream. It is a stunning scene of Cage mega-acting that deserves to be played on repeat in art museums across the world.
After that moment, the memory of my viewing experience is a little hazy, as I think I entered some sort of fugue state induced by the unfiltered cinematic glory on display. Mandy peaks with an insane Cage slaughtering netherworldly creatures, complete with buckets of syrupy blood and innards. Despite an obviously low budget, the shadowy look of the demons is all practical effects and outshines the underwhelming CG of its Hollywood counterparts.
Those who know me should understand that Mandy is tailored to my interests in a near-uncanny fashion: Nicolas Cage, copious gore, capital-A aesthetic porn, etc. We’ll see if I end up having the chutzpah to place it at my number one spot by the year’s end; nevertheless, there’s no question I’ll revisit it more than anything else from 2018.