There are some actors who aim for a sort of modest-to-Method-run-amuck realism — they want/need you to see every muscle straining in the name of disappearing into an everyman character, to prove they can turn the quotidian task of putting on socks into an elaborate tribute to commitment. There are some performers who prefer a more minimalist approach, for whom less-is-more is a mantra. And then there are others for whom no gesture is too broad or baroque, the kind who not only want to play all the scales but to play every single one of them all at once. Which brings us to Nicolas Cage.
We’ve come to neither bury nor praise this Caesar of screen emoting/screaming. We’d simply like to point out that there are few, if any, movie stars working today who’ve been so determined to explore the outer limits of their roles, even if that means going to truly ridiculous places. He once lamented that actors can either pitch things slow and low or at “scraping at THE DOOR” levels of Kabuki-like performance. (“You show me where the top is, and I’ll let you know whether I’m over it or not,” he told Variety. “I design where the top is.”) They just aren’t allowed to do both, which vexes him to no end. And even though he’s risked devaluing his currency by working at an insanely prolific rate — scrolling down his IMDb page will give you carpal-tunnel syndrome — Cage is the sort of person who can wow you or wound you be playing either extreme. His simmering-below-the-surface game is strong. You just tend to remember the raging infernos more — the bad lieutenants and ghost riders, the bug-eyed, roach-chomping, bee-hating turns.
There are two great Cage scenes in Mandy, the self-consciously retro-tropic revenge thriller and real live exploitation-movie museum from filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, both of which will remind you what a compelling presence the actor is when there’s a camera present and no leash in sight. The first involves him stepping into a bathroom, bloody and in his tighty-whiteys. He grabs a bottle of what appears to be Vodka out of a cabinet and takes Leaving Las Vegas-sized swigs from it. Then he pours the booze on his wounds, and howls. That turns into shriek, the kind we’ve heard him do before. It morphs into him slumped on the toilet, weeping. Then sadness turns to white-hot madness, and we understand an angel of vengeance, the kind who uses a crossbow called “the reaper” and will forge a ragged ax-like thing to kill demons (like, actual demons) in the name of love, has entered the building. One man, one shot, a little over two minutes.
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The other one involves a chainsaw duel with a giant hippie. It defies description. It’s amazing, and still somehow pales in comparison intensity-wise to that first sequence.
As for the rest of Mandy, it’s the sort of movie that likes its volume dial to be permanently stuck at 11, its references to be hidden in plain sight and/or deafeningly trumpeted, and its freak flag flying very, very high. None of which means that the endless collage of vintage scuzz-kitsch and underground artifacts (metal T’s, Frazetta-like fantasy murals, sci-fi paperback pulp) hits as hard as either of the two rage-in-a-Cage sequences mentioned above. His lumberjack Red Miller lives in the woods “by Crystal Lake” with his lady love, a lankhaired artist named Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, current hardest working woman in show business). A cult known as the Children of the New Dawn slithers into town, complete with their Manson-like leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache). He takes a fancy to the hesher goddess, and orders some netherworld bikers on loan from Hellraiser flicks to abduct her. The idea is to seduce Mandy with his folk album: Look at his game, girl! It does not go well. Nothing does.
These could be folks in rural Anywhere, USA, with the Gipper addressing a nation of kooks and killers on the radio. Where these characters really reside, however, is in a fantasyland designed by Cosmatos, a filmmaker weaned on Seventies midnight movies and early Eighties genre fixations. His debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), felt as if he’d been mainlining Jodorowsky and Blue Sunshine for years. His follow-up wants viewers to believe they’re not just watching a movie that takes place in the Reagan era but one they’ve discovered via a dusty VHS tape that carbon-dates to 1983. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you have someone like Riseborough lending a lysergic nervousness to her heroine, or a cinematographer like Benjamin Loeb who can film darkness or was-I-just-dosed set pieces poetically, or a composer like the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose score (his last) is some truly gorgeous droning.
It’s just that after a while, all the violence and Galactus-related pillow talk and slasher-film namedrops and nihilism chic begins to feel like weirdness for its own sake — a hall of mirrors with nothing in the middle, just endlessly reflecting back its own infinite references. It’s why, when Cage steps in to dominate the film’s second half, there’s a sense that something is finally there at its center, i.e. someone who knows how to match extremes. Which, yes, he does. Mandy may feel like a cult movie that assumes it already has a prefab cult inherited from other head-trippy works. As a star vehicle, however, this film is fully scraping at the door. And by the end of it, there’s enough inspired Cage lunacy here that you want to let the damned thing in.