If “Mandy” isn’t Nicolas Cage’s best film in a decade, then it’s just a sign of how much of a laughing stock his career has become that it’s hard to remember that he used to actually be in good movies. Regardless, he’s in one again with director Panos Cosmatos’ (“Beyond the Black Rainbow”) thrilling and surreal fantasy horror.
Cage stars as Red Miller, a logger living with his artsy girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough, “The Death of Stalin”) somewhere out west. To say too much of the plot would ruin the sheer visceral power of this gore-filled romp, but the main story is basically Cage on a revenge mission through an increasingly hellish landscape fuelled by booze, blood and psychedelics. On his path, he is faced with questions of life, death and what it means to be a good person in a world gone mad. If that sounds a little bit pretentious and over the top, so is the film. It’s one of those movies that has a very everything-and-the-kitchen-sink kind of mentality. It’s not clear that there were any ideas left on the cutting room floor or any creativity left in the tank. It works for the most part.
The production value of this picture is easily the highest we’ve seen for this kind of B-movie Cage feature in years. The cinematography and art design in particular work together to convey a sense of despair and increasing anger as the color pallet slowly becomes redder and redder as the film progresses. Another aspect that deserves special mention is the score. Composed by the late two-time Academy Award nominee Jóhann Jóhannson (“The Theory of Everything), the score perfectly captures the script’s tone of quiet desperation interspersed with moments of absolute brutality.
The violence in “Mandy” might be a bit much for some. Thematically, the film touches on a lot of strange and complex themes, namely the nature of religious fervor and the concept of revenge as justice. Will revenge truly make you feel whole again? Will it bring back what you think you’ve lost? Will you lose some of yourself along the way? These are all questions that have been asked before in similar works but are seen here through a more offbeat and yes even psychotic lens than usual. Cosmatos fills every scene with a sense of the bizarre, daring the audience to tell him when enough is enough. The cult that features prominently as the central antagonists of the film is truly disturbing, with one particular scene being among the most horrible things that have been seen in cinema this year. The sheer rawness of the bloodlust and violence that emanates from these characters is unusual for a major theater release, and for that reason alone, a lot of viewers may be turned off from the film.
For his part, Cage provides, without a doubt, one of his most engaging performances of the 21st century. Grappling with grief and pain and a righteous and indignant sense of justice, Cage imbues his scenes with what appears to be actual genuine emotion, a concept that has seemed foreign to Cage in recent years. The character arc is compelling and the place that the Red Miller winds up at the end of the film is thoroughly surprising and satisfying at the same time. The haunting final images leave the audience with maybe too much to think about. Leaving the theater is like walking out of a fever dream, one you choose to enter, but one you’re not certain you will ever be able to forget.