Like the heavy metal that inspires it, the hypnotic Mandy finds glory spitting in the face of convention
Nicolas Cage is nothing if not committed to his brand. Since he fell from mainstream Hollywood’s good graces with a string of mid-2000s flops, Cage has tried repeatedly to channel his reputation for off-the-wall performances into kitschy genre pieces better suited for his specific range of talents. The problem with most of these films is that almost none of them have been brave enough to rise to his level of unhinged emotion, often leaving Cage putting everything out on the table with nothing of substance surrounding him. As a result, he’s become a meme whose entire career has turned into the internet’s plaything, a status he seems increasingly uncomfortable with. Even the performances that made him a household name, roles that were once celebrated and revered, are now fuel for the meme fire. Cage desperately needed a movie fully willing to access his carnal energy, a work that could serve as thesis statement for the Nicolas Cage experience. He needed something that validated an acting style frankly no one else dares to attempt.
As if coming from the gates of Valhalla itself, Mandy has arrived to give Cage the film he’s been searching for. A metal opera that finds its inspiration in decades of rock mythos, the film follows Cage as Red Miller, a quiet man whose idyllic life in the woods with introspective artist Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) is shattered with the arrival of Charles Mansonesque hippy maniac Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache, Batman Begins) and his devoted band of followers. After his attempted brainwashing of Mandy goes awry, Sand and his followers kill her and leave Red for dead, sending him down a rabbit hole of nightmares in a quest for revenge. There’s demonic bikers, a chainsaw duel, and enough drugs to fuel several re-do’s of the 80s.
To summarize it is like trying to describe the taste of waste whilst trapped in a mosh pit. The film is a fantasia of the weird, a surprise to no one who saw writer-director Panos Cosmato’s debut film, the polarizing and off-kilter Beyond the Black Rainbow. Cosmatos, like any purveyor of the metal scene, is all about the feeling of his work. Standard plot structure and development need not apply as Cosmatos twists a rather slow exploration of a loving bond between two outsiders into a no-holds barred rollercoaster from Hell. Along the way, he’s more concerned about the thrill of the ride than he is about any clear-cut definition of the world he’s creating.
Weirdly, it works marvelously. The film feels like a grand epic filtered through Headbangers Ball, painted in eye-popping palettes of color and darkness and always tinged with a dedication to strangeness. It’s a story in two parts, with an excellent Riseborough commanding much of the film’s first meditative half before Cage is let loose with a vengeance in the ferocious aftermath to Mandy’s demise (it’s notable, and completely kick-ass, that the title card comes over halfway into the film). While opposite in pace, the two halves are bound together by not only strikingly beautiful work behind the camera by Cosmatos, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb (Hello Destroyer), and late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival) but also by a critical understanding of the heart of metal music. Sure, it’s easy to say that as Cage smiths an ax straight out of an Iron Maiden video and proceeds to dole out gory, Punisher-style justice with it. But perhaps unlike any film that has come before it, it captures the aching, sensitive poetry of the genre as well. Red and Mandy’s relationship, soaked deep in affection and understanding, reminds us of the softer side of metalheads, a culture just as ready to pick you up from the grimy floors of a concert hall and make sure you’re safe as they are in giving into their penchant for anarchy.
The same can be said for Cage. He might be an actor well-versed in hyperbole, but there’s a tenderness bubbling underneath his rage that perhaps only he could achieve convincingly in a film like this. For all his ranting and murdering, there’s an equal dosage of humanity. The film could work with perhaps no one else, as the swing from sensitivity to chaos is the very essence of Cage’s repertoire. It may very well be his career-defining role.
Equally dependable are Riseborough and Roache, who turn in solid performances. Riseborough, continuing her quiet rise as one of the industry's best actresses, makes what could otherwise be a manic pixie dream girl character feel startlingly real life and defined, an artist plagued by a rough life but never defeated by it. Roache, a long underrated actor, revels in the twisted nature of his character, bringing to life a haunting and complex portrayal of the hypocrisy of cultist figureheads. He doesn’t feel as formidable of a foe as his henchmen, but he does inject the horror of the film into its veins and give it its teeth. Through Roache’s committed performance, Cosmatos is clearly trying to damn the enemies of the metal way: the heretics and proselytizers who abuse their power over others in a blind grab for control, control they crave due to fear of their own normalcy.
Mandy can be an overwhelming film, for sure. Its pacing is sometimes just a bit too off, and it’s sometimes frustratingly aloof. No one would call it a stretch to say it will certainly alienate those more attuned to more conventional filmmaking; its detractors will call it a plotless, overly violent, and nihilistic exercise. But the film takes its joy in flipping the bird to those who would oppose it, knowing that for all its chaos, there is beauty in the madness. Not to mention a heart as well, one which beats for a man long in search of one equal to his craft.