Jesus H. Christ. I mean…
When Auguste and Louis Lumière held the first demonstration of moving images developed with their Cinematograph projection device at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris in 1895, who could have imagined it would take until 2018, over a century later, for the art-form of film to be perfected, when, during the finale of Mandy – the sophomore feature from Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) – a blood-caked and LSD-addled Nicolas Cage dispatches an entire cult in the pit of Hell whilst dual-wielding a chainsaw and battle axe? This gonzo sequence, however, is but a soupçon of the deranged spectacle to be found within this phantasmagorical revenge caper that one might pitch as The Last House on the Left as directed by Gaspar Noé, or a film adaptation of the skeleton rocking chair meme, but which can be more succinctly described as one of the worst ever first date movies.
Nicolas Cage is Red Miller, a woodsman living in recluse in the Shadow Mountains in 1983 with his girlfriend, fantasy art painter Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). While out on a walk, Mandy passes a van carrying members of the hippie cult Children of the New Dawn, led by Peter Stringfellow-lookalike Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Coveting Mandy, Sand directs his disciples to kidnap her, enlisting the help of a demonic biker gang that resemble the Cenobite monsters from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. When Mandy spurns Sand’s advances, Red is brutally tortured and made to witness Mandy being burned alive. Swearing revenge and picking up his trusty crossbow, Red embarks on a grisly and psychedelic rampage.
After several years of appearances in direct-to-video dreck – motivated in no small part by the squandering of his heyday $150 million net worth on two European castles, various shrunken pygmy heads, and outbidding Leonardo DiCaprio at an auction for a dinosaur skull – doubts began to fly that Nicolas Cage would never again be able to recapture either the singularly weird, offbeat brilliance of his roles in Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart, or the endlessly meme-ified, drunk movie night classics Vampire’s Kiss and The Wicker Man. Rest assured then that Mandy represents a welcome return to the pageantry of Cage Rage – a dialogue-free sequence where the grief-stricken Red stumbles into his bathroom, downs a bottle of vodka and unleashes a torrent of primordial screams and bellows, demonstrates Cage’s most underrated strength as an actor: an incredible capacity for expressivity that problematises the binary between “good” realist acting and “bad” hammy acting. While one could contend that beauty is in the eye of the beholder as to whether Nicolas Cage’s performance in Mandy transcends or confirms the ridicule that his acting style has been criticised for in recent years, the affectionate laughter that echoed throughout the Saturday night screening suggests that the Cage faithful were placated.
Beyond the excess of Mandy’s central performance, the look and sound of the film equally serve to enhance its innate madness. For this film, Cosmatos and his DP Benjamin Loeb utilised a digital Arri Alexa camera, notable for its tonal range and colour space as well as its implementation by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins on the film that would finally win him his first Academy Award for Cinematography, Blade Runner 2049. Coupled with the decision to shoot in the Panavision anamorphic format, Mandy simulates the grain of an old VHS tape, thereby accentuating its old school charms, while animated interludes are rendered in the style of the 1981 animated adult sci-fi anthology Heavy Metal, carrying home the sense that this film is a forgotten relic from the back room of an old Blockbuster Video store. But Mandy’s visual style should not be the only selling point for cineastes: the film represents one of the final soundscapes by Jóhann Jóhannsson, the composer most often associated with his collaborations with Denis Villeneuve – Prisoners, Arrival – who tragically passed away in February 2018. Fittingly, Jóhannsson’s work in Mandy is a triumphant swansong – a thick, treacly and imposing score that is nearly overwhelming in its inducement of dread.