“It didn’t make any sense. They were bikers and gnarly psychos and…crazy evil.” That’s a line from one of Nicholas Cage’s many breakdowns in Mandy and there’s no better line to describe this to those not ready to behold its majesty.
This movie is pure heavy metal. Not the pablum that passes for metal today, trying in vain to frighten old people inside dying malls from shiny black plastic fake Hot Topic environs, but the kind of metal that envelopes you within its darkness. From the opening strains of King Crimson’s “Starless” to the slow, druggy doom drone that each scene in the first hour or so makes you feel to the actual bravura moment that the title of the film appears 75 minutes into the picture and transforms into a black metal spiral of roots and trees and black infinity, this isn’t a movie influenced by metal or referencing it. It has become pure heavy metal. This is a t-shirt with holes in it that the kid in the back of the class wears. This is staring at the details on the cover painting of “Somewhere in Time.” This is slowly losing your mind as you stare at a blacklight poster and that thudding slow bass and wait for the riff to slow down enough for the screaming to begin.
Let’s get one thing straight: Nicholas Cage is the only person who could be in this movie. One of my friends has often scoffed that no actor has squandered their promise more than Cage, following his Best Actor Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas with Face/Off. I disagree. This is the actor who has referred to himself as the “California Klaus Kinski.” Someone who has inspired impressions that refer to the Cage Rage. No one else could bring such a feral intensity to films that probably don’t deserve it. I would argue that true art is the kind found in the gutter; if that is true, then Cage has imbued films like Con Air with a heart and bloody soul that a lesser actor would just see as dollar signs.
At heart, Mandy is a simple story. In 1983, logger Red Miller (Cage) has settled into a quiet life in the woods with his soulmate, an artist named Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, Birdman). A gang of “homicidal Jesus freaks” kidnaps her when their leader, Jeremiah (Linus Roache, Thomas Wayne from Nolan’s Batman Begins), falls for her. When she rebuffs his advances and has the gall to laugh at his music, the gang unleashes its fury by torturing Red and setting his love ablaze.
As her ashes fall through his fingers, we’re treated to Cage doing what he does best — pure raw emotion, screaming and sobbing as he washes blood and pain away with a bottle of vodka, shrieking in a 70’s style bathroom clad only on tighty whities and a t-shirt with a tiger’s face on it. If you watched this scene and any other actor attempted to essay it, it would derail the film, forcing it into parody or low pathos. But this is Nicholas Cage, an actor who you can’t avoid or look away from. You are forced to see Red’s pain as he marshalls his energies and begins to rebuild.
Oh — did I mention that the gang isn’t all human and that there are demon bikers among their number? Or that Cage responds by grabbing a crossbow and hammering boiling hot metal into a gigantic scythe?
Beyond metal, Mandy also draws inspiration from the artwork you’d shouting at you from 1970’s science fiction and horror paperbacks, with title cards torn directly from those pulpy pageturners.
This is the kind of work that only emerges when an artist has pure control of his vision. Here, that artist is Panos Cosmatos, who bestowed on us the truly touched film Beyond the Black Rainbow. The inherent promise of that film is realized here. Forget pundits blabbing about how horror must be elevated so that the stigma of the genre title doesn’t impact art. This is a movie that recognizes that the only difference between the arthouse and the grindhouse is the neighborhood your film plays in.
I always wonder if films can still surprise me after all of the craziness that I’ve witnessed. I’m happy to report that Mandy has shown me — in one scene — that I am not jaded. Not yet. Have you ever seen a movie where the hero comes upon one of the villains doing coke and watching scummy looking 1970’s porn, only to attack said hero with a demonic sword penis? And what if the hero slices open the villain and laughs like a lunatic while blood sprays all over his face and in his mouth? And then that hero decides to do some of that leftover coke? Until you see this one, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Beyond Cage, there are also great performances here from Richard Brake (the only good part of Rob Zombie’s 31) as The Chemist whose drugs have set the Children of the New Dawn cult on a path they may never walk away from; Bill Duke (Predator) in a brief role as Caruthers; and the aforementioned Riseborough and Roache. And the music by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (who scored Prisoners and mother!) is a drone masterpiece, echoing the sounds of bands like Sleep.
I have so many questions. In the end, does Red become Kali, the destroyer of worlds, as he hacks off head after head in his quest for vengeance? Part of me thinks this is true, with his distorted voice saying lines like, “I’m your god now.” How amazing is that shot of Cage’s face while his truck speeds through the night his face awash in blood, dreaming of his dead love with big eyes and a maniacal look on his face? And how frightening is that scene of Ronald Regan’s disembodied voice on the radio, reminding us of the uncertainty and terror that 1983 had, the year that both this film and Beyond the Black Rainbow share? How rad is the artwork that Boris Vallejo’s collaborator and wife Julie Bell created for the film?
Honestly, this is the best movie I’ve seen all year. It may be the best movie I’ll see for a couple of years. It’s as if I asked Cosmatos to include everything that I want to see in one film: demon bikers, chainsaw battles, animated sequences that echo Heavy Metal, commercial parodies where goblins vomit mac and cheese, tigers roaring against a dayglo night sky and geysers of gore. And after all that noise, the credits roll to total silence. I often remark that certain movies are better with various substances. Mandy needs no other stimulants. It is a powerful and transformative hallucinogen all its own.
UPDATE: This movie is now streaming on Shudder.