In recent years, it would seem that Nicolas Cage’s mainstream internet, and thus modern popular culture reputation as Millennials’ benevolent memelord, and perhaps the most meme-ified of all thespians, has often transcended the plethora of big and low budget works he’s supplied appearances for, especially if their premises are off-the-wall enough to gain anxious recognition from certain niche audiences without his presence. Direct-to-VOD political and action thrillers like Rage and Dying of the Light are separate entities merely adding to the man’s mythos, particularly in the context of Cage taking on any role due to well-publicized financial struggles, but it’s films like Army of One and Mom and Dad whose eccentric and gonzo concepts ideally befit Cage’s meme status to the point of reluctant submission, bending the knee to his brand of crazy rather than making room for it.
With his sparse yet sprawling Lovecraftian horror dark fantasy ‘80s neon and fuzz-soaked revenge epic Mandy, in spite of its own absurd – and absurdly simple – premise, writer-director Panos Cosmatos has perhaps found a solution to this admittedly non-issue: keep all of the requisite Cage insanity, but contextually minimize his presence in the narrative. In other words, Mandy is the internet-conscious Millennial’s conception of the ideal Nic Cage flick, but he’s hardly in it enough to call the spotlight absolutely his. He is but one moving part, integral in its own way working in tandem with other vital pieces, particularly Andrea Riseborough’s title character and Linus Roache’s megalomaniacal cult leader with devious connections to a disturbing underworld. Everything you may have heard about this film during and post-Sundance with regards to Cage’s Red gloriously embodying a grizzled, bloodied working class warrior brutally fighting cult members and demon bikers with chainsaws is accurate, though as gratifying as it all is, it can only tell one part of a greater story.
To indulge in an overused cliché that bears genuine significance in this case, Mandy is a movie of contrasts. Colorful bursts of red, green and blue neon light sources as part of the film’s near constant use of low-key lighting aesthetically clash with the material’s overwhelming thematic darkness. Within the film itself, complementing its adopted cosmic horror roots, some characters internally struggle with existential meaning, purpose and belonging fitting themselves into a role they believe includes a sense of significance, all while representing but one person in an unfeeling universe that cares not for their beliefs and perverted sense of self-worth. Bloody, fast-paced violence shares screen time with, and is perhaps even outnumbered by moments of brooding, expressive ambles through pathos and ire, and such is a byproduct of the narrative structure essentially being divided into halves; Mandy and post-Mandy.
The film is a curious, grindhouse-fueled exercise in simultaneous minimalism and maximized emotion. The premise is as bare bones as you can get for a genre film of this type, but Cosmatos’s execution is so obsessively focused on details some genre contemporaries would deem trivial it practically transforms what might normally be a brisk 80-minute or so rollercoaster into a two-hour epic of near-Shakespearean proportions by way of a modern reincarnation of H.P. Lovecraft raised on ‘80s horror and ‘70s exploitation grime. The resulting product is, for the most part, dripping molasses-slow – which may risk turning off viewers expecting something a little more pedal to the metal – but by no means lacks in atmosphere, feeling, chaos and stunning carnage. In fact, the film’s violence acts as mere punctuation necessary to further underlining Red’s anguish and some of the cult’s existential anxieties, with the rest of the runtime dominated by evocative storytelling and performances inflected by Cosmatos’s overall proclivity for vintage vibes through DOP Benjamin Loeb’s versatile eye and ethereal art and lighting designs.
It can be difficult discerning whether or not its now-popularized style and sensibility of ‘80s genre homage bears any essential purpose or connection to the narrative, not just existing for the sake of looking sufficiently psychedelic and hypnotic to fulfill an insatiable hunger for filmmaking nostalgia, though while it certainly, almost effortlessly is that, it does at the very least prove its worth in silently emphasizing the humanity of Cage’s Red and Riseborough’s Mandy, as well as communicating their love in effective broad strokes, and the horror of the evil cast upon them. In all fairness, perhaps asking such questions and requiring such depth is missing the point of a genre film whose intentions are nakedly to appropriate certain aesthetics for the purposes of crowd-pleasing engagement, whatever subset of genre fandom it means to hook, but for Mandy, not only is it atmospherically satisfying enough to stave off such high-minded concerns, it’s proof-positive of simplicity signifying universality in the best of senses, pulling in all who grant it a curious gaze.
As such, it doesn’t burrow deep into the philosophical realms expected of its cosmic inspirations or even the distinctions of the material’s various emotional thrusts – Cosmatos’s sense of tonal nuance with this film is rather a continuous manifestation of interchanging black-and-white extremes – but it never really needs to, riding high on cathartic ultraviolence and the trippy fever dream visual cues of a High on Fire music video ramped up to 11. And needless to say, when it finally turns violent well over an hour in, it embraces a descent into creative and visionary madness worthy of its unquestioned star player’s famed breaks into cinematic lunacy. Perhaps the conceptual magic of a chainsaw-wielding Nicolas Cage fighting demonic monstrosities and fanatic cult worshippers on behalf of his perished beloved, colored by the aural artistry of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s posthumous acid-sludge-synth tunes, is self-explanatory, but in action, it thankfully doesn’t play out like the average meme consumer’s Nic Cage wish-fulfillment gimmickry, truly feeling like a heartfelt ‘80s homage without presuming its own grandeur.
Admittedly, that may not be the easiest quality to immediately sense given the thick slathering of style above substance, but there’s a humility buried underneath Mandy’s readily available details to recognize Cosmatos’s passion beyond the bloodthirsty action horror desires. Yes, it doesn’t get straight to brass tax like other cult grindhouse wannabes, but shouldn’t we expect some others to equally grasp even the most basic emotional textures lacing the proceedings the way it does, giving us something else tangible to hold onto aside from, say, a scene of a bloodied Cage snorting a considerable mound of cocaine sitting on a broken glass shard on the floor? On the back of this modesty, Mandy transcends the hype laid in its wake by reasonably enthusiastic individuals granted early access to its glory, and perhaps even accomplishes the unthinkable in overcoming Nicolas Cage’s indefatigable meme persona.
Yes, Red Miller is undoubtedly one of Cage’s best performances in years (though let’s not forget the likes of Riseborough and Roache, as well as captivating cameos from Bill Duke and Richard Brake), but again, he is one cog of many, and perhaps his Miller’s arc reflects the hidden tragedy of the film’s premise. Though the frequent visual blasts of neon hues call attention to the moments they highlight, purporting some meaningful measure of personal worth in his quest for vengeance, the film can’t help but fall back on the ultimate insignificance of his and ultimately all of our actions and the events that shape us, relayed through the usual cues toward the unknown deemphasizing our collective presence as one tiny speck in a larger universe. It’s obvious thematic territory, sure, but it’s no less effective and even feels relatively upsetting. We care about Red’s pain and muted sense of victory amidst his sheer badassery, and it’s refreshingly difficult to remember the last time such could be said about a Nicolas Cage character.