Mandy. Directed by Panos Cosmatos. Starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache. Rating: 7 (out of 10)
Mandy is a midnight madness offering, a phantasmagoric journey populated by mutant bikers, a maniacal cult leader, and gore par excellence. Your guide on this journey is Nicolas Cage. If you don’t like all of those things, read no further.
Say what you will about Cage’s choices over the years – some of which have been outright disasters (Arsenal, Left Behind), some of which are pretty great (Adaptation, Moonstruck, Raising Arizona), and one of which earned him a Best Actor Oscar (Leaving Las Vegas), there’s no arguing that the actor makes interesting choices. He also works harder than most actors in Hollywood, with five features released last year alone.
His latest work is a night-fever reverie co-written and directed by Panos Cosmatos, the director of 2012’s Beyond the Black Rainbow. There’s an argument to be made that no one but Cage could pull off the pulpy excesses of the film – like the duel between a guy with a chainsaw versus a guy with a much larger chainsaw – while still conveying the very real agony of a man in mourning.
The film opens with a quote, the last words of a real death-row inmate. Then we meet Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a couple living in the woods in the Pacific Northwest, as far as possible off the grid to still get cable. Red cuts down trees in with a small crew and doesn’t talk much; Mandy works at a remote gas station and creates fantastical art featuring tigers and waifs and dragons. There are lots of drugs involved. It’s 1983.
The lovers spend their nights in their house made from old window panes talking about her art, the sci-fi novel she’s reading, and the planets. Mandy’s favourite planet? “Jupiter, no doubt,” she answers, “because the surface of its atmosphere is a storm that’s been raging for like, a thousand years.”
But a storm is brewing in her neck of the woods, too. One night a van full of “Jesus freaks” passes Mandy on the road, and its cruel and charismatic leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache) decides that he can’t live without her. “If you are not with me, you will not ascend,” he threatens one disciple. A mystical object – the Horn of Abraxas – signals to a pack of heaving, horrible hell-hounds on motorcycles, a biker gang deformed and deranged by a lethally strong batch of LSD.
Cosmatos creates tension in the little things, like the rolling up and down of a car window, and there’s weirdness in abundance among the cult members. A haunting soundtrack by the late Johann Johannsson amplifies the dread. They kidnap Mandy and drug her. But even on acid, while Jeremiah’s face morphs into Mandy’s own, she can see the ridiculousness of a prophet who has his own album, his own anthem, and she makes the fatal error of laughing at him. (Big mistake: never laugh at a man with his clothes off.) Things get really bad for Mandy from then on.
Red is witness to the outcome (there’s genius in Cage’s silent scream) and he is left for dead but survives, hell-bent on destroying the perpetrators. The scene that follows will polarize viewers: wearing his bloodied shirt and briefs, Red pours liquor on his wounds and down his throat, howling like an animal before succumbing to tears and then raging again. We’ve seen Cage bellowing before, but never like this: it’s nuanced, and essential to the transformation of Red into a vengeful killing machine.
He hand-forges a weapon befitting otherworldly beasts, and visits an old friend (Bill Duke) to retrieve a crossbow. “Your odds ain’t that good and you will probably die,” says the friend, the only one with a lick of sound sense in the whole film.
Things get weirder from there, if that’s possible. We feel the absence of the sylph-like Mandy in the second half, as Red gets increasingly bloodied, the body count mounts and the landscape takes on the appearance of the science fiction novel Mandy was reading. “It didn’t make any sense … there were bikers and gnarly psychos,” Red says, which just about sums up the film. But there’s beauty in the trip, if you don’t mind the violent ride. Twitter.com/juliecfilm