The New Cult Canon: 'Mandy'
Panos Cosmatos' hallucinogenic, retro-'80s revenge thriller offers the full Nicolas Cage experience.
“His name could summon up highs and lows of the sort few other actors could boast; nor could few other actors prompt so much discussion as to which were the highs and which were the lows.” — Keith Phipps, The Age of Cage: Four Decades Through One Singular Career
“Erik Estrada who?”
“Erik Estrada from CHiPs.” — Nicolas Cage, Mandy
The money scene in Mandy, Pano Cosmatos’ retro-’80s heavy-metal phantasmagoria (emphasis on the “goria”), finds a bloody, hysterical Nicolas Cage in the bathroom with a bottle of vodka. As Red, a logger who’d been living in peaceful reclusion near the Shadow Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, he’s just woken from a nightmare that could never equal the nightmare he’d witnessed in real life. After he and his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) were abducted by a hippie religious cult calling itself the Children of the New Dawn, Red had been forced to watch while its members hung Mandy up inside a sack and ritualistically burned her alive. He’d managed to free himself from barbed wire pinned around his face and mouth, but what could survival even mean for him at this point?
This is when Red enters the bathroom and Cage goes to work. Bloodied and disheveled in his skivvies and a black-and-orange tiger shirt—which, incredibly, serves as a bit of foreshadowing—Red dives for the bottle of vodka he has tucked away in the cabinet next to the sink and takes a swig. That’s when the moaning starts. He keeps drinking and the moaning gets louder, the liquor stoking an inferno of emotions until he starts to scream and cry in great, heaving spasms. Cage is playing a man in physical and psychological agony, expressing some combination of pain, anger, resilience and grief simultaneously. It’s hard to know how to react to Cage’s performance, because he’s doing so many things at once and on a register few other actors would even consider reaching, whether they could do it or not. It is the quintessential Cage moment.
The default response, from my experience, is laughter. When Keith hosted a book-launch event at Music Box in Chicago with a double feature of Matchstick Men and Face/Off, the reaction to both films, especially Face/Off, from the hundreds in attendance occasionally threw me off. Were people laughing at him or with him? And is that laughter defensive or boisterous, appreciative or mocking? No one can hope or expect to manage people’s responses to a movie—though I recall (and did appreciate) a professor counseling his students to be respectful at a Douglas Sirk screening—but Cage has a unique talent for scrambling them up a little, and it can be a bit unnerving to feel too far out of alignment with the rest of an audience. The bathroom scene in Mandy isn’t intended to be straight melodrama that Cage has played ridiculously to the hilt, but it isn’t quite right to understand it as knockabout comedy, as much as the film has in common with Sam Raimi’s two Evil Dead movies from the ’80s. The performance is irreducible. It’s Nicolas Cage.
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The son of George P. Cosmatos, the Greek-Italian director who made the Sylvester Stallone vehicles Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra, as well as the zesty 1993 western Tombstone, Panos Cosmatos grew up in British Columbia and once talked about frequenting a video store where he was too young to see the horror films, so he “would look at the covers and read the back of the box to imagine my own version of the movie.” Though this interview was in connection with his 2010 debut feature Beyond the Black Rainbow, a head trip that evokes early David Cronenberg and science-fiction films like Altered States and THX-1138, he could not possibly be describing the world of Mandy better. Here’s a film that takes place in the same time and general region where Cosmatos was raised, and creates a world that feels as indebted to VHS clamshell boxes and heavy-metal album covers as it does to the actual art within them.
The uncredited epigram that opens Mandy comes from the last statement of death row inmate Douglas Roberts, who was executed for kidnapping, robbery and murder in 2005: “When I die/ bury me deep /lay two speakers at my feet/ put some headphones on my head/ and rock and roll me when I’m dead.” The quote reminds me a little of Samuel L. Jackson’s hitman in Pulp Fiction describing a Biblical passage as “a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass.” To that end, Cosmatos appears to be leaning heavily into the idea of his film as a bone-rattling acid rock fantasia—and at 125 minutes, maybe one of those double albums with a whole universe inside the gatefold. King Crimson’s prog-rock epic “Starless” plays over the opening credits.
Though Cosmatos and his co-screenwriter, Aaron Stewart-Ahn, do enough to establish the basic signposts of the period, Red and Mandy live in seclusion in a modest lake house, and it doesn’t take but a couple of lines from a Ronald Reagan speech for Red to turn off the radio. This is their idyll, where Red comes home from work with a knock-knock joke and Mandy can draw inspiration for her artwork while logging time as a gas station cashier. But when Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the leader of Children of the New Dawn, catches a glimpse of Mandy by the side of the road, he’s so thunderstruck that he orders his disciples to execute a kidnapping.
Now here’s where things get weird: On the night of kidnapping, a disciple blows on a mystical wind instrument called the Horn of Abraxas, which summons a gang of demonic, cannibalistic bikers into action. (We learn later that this gang, called the Black Skulls, has been transformed from a crazily potent batch of LSD, but they’re like Mad Max villains from literal Hell.) There seems to be some hope on Jeremiah’s part that his cult-leader charisma, combined with his psychedelic folk music, will prove irresistible to Mandy, but she laughs at him and humiliates him and he opts to kill her instead. A cult leader can’t allow himself to be exposed as a joke.
Once Mandy dies and Red frees himself, the film becomes a relatively straightforward revenge thriller, emphasis on “relatively,” because there’s nothing normal beyond the steady progression from one foe to the next en route to a final confrontation between Red and Jeremiah. All of the action takes place at night in environments that are conspicuously unnatural, with unknown sources of backlighting pushed through color filters and enough fog machines to reproduce a San Francisco morning. Red’s weapons are sometimes improvised, but he does come armed with a crossbow and a battle axe he’s forged himself from fire and molten steel, as if he’s playing the hero of one of the fantasy paperbacks that his wife liked to thumb through at work. Cosmatos turns him into a mythic hero.
And yet, Cage also makes him a man. One of the striking elements of Mandy, owed largely to Cage’s performance, is how Red’s emotional state isn’t back-burnered while he’s out for revenge. The feeling that he’s lost the one thing he cared about—this modest, peaceful life that he had with the woman he loves—is right there on the surface as he’s trudging through what feels like a suicide mission, in the sense that he doesn’t expect (or even want) or survive, but needs to go as far as he can. Cosmatos’ obsession with ‘80s horror—one backlit shot is so close to the most famous shot of the vampire gang in Near Dark that it should come with an academic citation—makes comparisons to Bruce Campbell’s supernatural forest odyssey in Evil Dead II inevitable. But beyond the distinctly hallucinogenic punch of Mandy, supercharged by Red’s sampling of the Black Skulls’ acid jars, there’s a raw grief to the film that’s unmistakable.
“You exude a cosmic darkness,” says The Chemist (Richard Brake), lone sympathetic soul Red encounters on his mission of vengeance. And so does the film itself, which might take place in the Pacific Northwest, but becomes an otherworldly stage whenever it pulls back and reveals the astronomically impossible alignment of stars and planets that border its version of the earth. With a score by the late, brilliant Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose work here recalls the ’80s synth found in Michael Mann and William Friedkin films of the time, Mandy brings viewers along with Red to another plane of consciousness, disconnected from the world we know yet humming with intense feeling. The last of its three chapters is called “Mandy” because she’s still present to Red even with her body reduced to smoldering ashes. That’s how it feels to have love and lost, and her reappearance in dreams or hallucinations may make Red happy that he’s dipped into the acid pot.
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I can kind of get why people would laugh at that Cage scene, but it makes me glad I saw this at home--I found that sequence really affecting, and the rawness of it felt really honest to me. The whole movie kind of belongs to Riseborough, and one of the things I love about Cage's performance is that he clearly understands this; so that when Mandy dies and the focus shifts to him, he still never feels like the main character. God, I need to watch this again.
Seeing this at the Music Box here in Chicago with a crowd that seemed to love and be baffled by it is pretty much the origin story of AGE OF CAGE. (Also, obligatory promotion: the book is still available. The paperback comes out 3/21 but the hardcover is currently even cheaper on Amazon and I think there's a coupon on the book's page there, too). (https://www.amazon.com/Age-Cage-Decades-Hollywood-Singular/dp/1250848822/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1678291692&sr=8-1)