Spoilers ahead, as well as a colorful assortment of Nicolas Cage images.
Nicolas Cage defies explanation. He’s an enigma, an actor whose career is so baffling that it seems almost random. He’s an inherently difficult actor to really discuss, because it’s nearly impossible to decide what angle to approach him from. His career has absolutely no cohesion whatsoever, as he seems to jump from role to role with a sort of devil-may-care attitude that almost makes it seem like he’ll literally star in anything. Many of his roles seem to suggest that he should be seen as a character actor, in the vein of Johnny Depp, someone who consistently plays larger-than-life figures with cartoonish and outlandish qualities. Movies like Face/Off, Kick-Ass, and Raising Arizona all prominently feature this aspect of his, let’s say, theatrical arsenal. And that certainly isn’t a bad thing. He’s great in roles where he gets to completely unleash himself, and basically act like a deranged maniac. He can certainly ham it up with the best of them. This is what I’m going to call “Full Cage,” and is what he’s mostly become known for. I think this SNL skit pretty much nails it:
Other times, he’s the leading man: A charming love interest, a noble do-gooder, or even an outright action hero. He’s a brilliant, Indiana Jones type in National Treasure, scientist-turned-badass in The Rock, and WWII soldier in Windtalkers. And he’s just as convincing here as he is in his more eccentric roles, somehow managing to convey a sort of charismatic confidence and archetypical heroic swagger, while still imbuing these characters with some of his trademark instability. He just doesn’t go all the way with it.
Cage can even pull of performances that are genuinely moving and spectacularly, unexpectedly, and undeniably, well, good. Leaving Las Vegas, where he plays a self-destructive alcoholic nabbed him an Academy Award, and the hyper-meta, semi-biographical Charlies Kaufman story Adaptation earned him another nomination. These roles show that he has bonafide classical acting chops, and can genuinely, successfully carry a dramatic plot. They also feature the least amount of Cage’s manic energy, tending to more so err on the side of underplaying emotions and reactions which he would typically exaggerate to a degree.
Basically, the type of Nic Cage performance you get in in any given film of his is entirely dependent on how close he’s allowed to get to “Full Cage,” with the spectrum ranging from the absolute insanity that is Castor Troy in Face/Off, to the bland, drabness of whatever his character is called in The Sorceror’s Apprentice (seriously, I dare any of you to tell me what it was without looking). Amazingly, however, Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos (which, I feel I should add, sounds like a Spanish Dr. Strange villain, and is therefore fantastic) seems to have found something which before now seemed almost impossible: a middle ground between Cage’s more insane, over-emotional, borderline-psychotic roles, his charming, more action-oriented ones, and those that are more nuanced and quiet-spoken. He manages to take the best aspects of all three of Cage’s styles, and blends them together in what may very well be the perfect Nicolas Cage film: Mandy.
Mandy is a relatively simple film, as far as its plot is concerned. It’s a classic revenge tale: A man’s beloved wife is murdered by a group of crazy religious fanatics, and so he decides to seek bloody vengeance. It’s something we’ve all seen a thousand times before, in Gladiator, The Crow, Unforgiven, and quite literally countless others. Yet it’s how director Panos Cosmatos approaches this fairly common narrative that elevates this film to its legendary status. The story is presented in such a way that you really don’t watch this movie, you experience it. The whole film is meticulously designed, from beginning to end, to serve as almost a piece of performance art, where the story and the narrative takes a backseat to their visual and aural presentation. To call Mandy stylized would be a massively understated disservice to the sheer visual and structural uniqueness of the film. Every frame is, quite literally, a surrealist work of art, with magnificent colors and lights dancing around the peripheral of every shot. The lighting and cinematography evoke an almost neo-noir quality, and reminded me a lot of Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography in Blade Runner 2049, only much more earthy and ethereal. And speaking of Blade Runner, 2049’s composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson lends his incredible talents here in his final film collaboration before his death. And what a final note to end on. Mandy’s music is this strange, psychedelic blend of 80s synthwave styles, eerie and atmospheric, while at the same time often energizing and powerful. The music helps to create Mandy’s signature dream-like sensibility, and also knows exactly when to drop the fairy tale tone and dive straight into the horror at the heart of the film.
And that isn’t to say the story itself is without its unique traits, either. While at its core, Mandy is a simple revenge plot, all the specifics surrounding that plot are something else entirely. It’s the cinematic equivalent to a fever dream. After you’ve seen it, you can’t quite tell if you’re really remembering it right. You can’t be, can you? Surely, that didn’t actually happen? But it did. It most certainly did. I can’t stress enough how absolutely crazy this movie is. Among other things, Mandy features:
- Demon drug bikers, who look like they walked right out of Hellraiser
- A Charles Manson-esque cult leader, played by Thomas Wayne from Batman Begins
- Obscure Marvel Comics references
- Nic Cage forging a battle-axe out of silver
- Bill Duke, playing his character from Predator?
- A chainsaw vs bigger chainsaw fight
- A tiger, who may be on psychedelics. Or psychic?
- And drugs. So many drugs. Like, all the drugs.
Lest you think I’m hyperbolizing the sheer lunacy of this film, here is a couple screen shots of the quick notes I was making on my phone as I watched Mandy late one night. It genuinely resembles a House of Leaves style descent into madness.
But therein lies the genius of Mandy, particularly in Cosmatos’s directing. The craziness and the energy of the film disguise a legitimate subtlety in its approach to grief and loss, which create a dynamic and often mesmerizing contrast between what’s going on onscreen vs what’s happening in Cage’s character’s mind. We see this man go through so much, and all the while we can track his every emotion and thought based solely on his mostly wordless expressions. While the events of the film move at a breakneck pace once the plot kicks into action, Cage himself takes his sweet time getting to his final state. The film revels in the slow build-up of Cage’s mental instability, giving the audience teases here and there before finally unleashing him in full during the film’s climax.
And that very fact is what makes Mandy such an excellent Nicolas Cage vehicle: It allows him to go “Full Cage” in a way that makes thematic sense. He’s screaming, throwing things, laughing, and acting like a psychopath, but in a way that’s perfectly reasonable given the circumstances. And we get the build-up necessary to convey this. Cage doesn’t start at 100%. He builds up to it, as more and more inexplicably obscene and insane things happen to him. We watch him break in real time. I recall one reviewer describing Mandy as “A tragic incident that forces a normal man to slowly transform into Nicolas Cage,” and I think that’s spot-on. Cage’s character goes from a normal, loving man, to a crazy, axe-wielding drug Viking, all in a way that seems believable and organic. And only Cage could’ve shown that descent. Look at it this way: Mandy is to Cage what John Wick was to Keanu Reeves. What I mean by that is, Keanu Reeves doesn’t exactly have the best range as an actor. Likeable as he is, Reeves really can’t emote to save his life. I never really bought him in a role as anything other than confused or stoic, which doesn’t really work in, say, a film like The Lake House. But that’s what made John Wick such a perfect character for him: The character itself has such a narrow range of emotion, intentionally, that he can successfully play it to perfection. And I feel like that’s what we’ve now gotten with Mandy: a film that is specifically tailored to Cage’s particular style of acting.
Another similarity with John Wick is how nuanced Mandy‘s approach to backstory is. We are never explicitly told anything about Cage or his wife’s lives prior to the film, nor about the cult that plagues them, but are left with enough clues to speculate. Was Cage an alcoholic? Did he fight in Vietnam? Who is his strange arms dealer friend? Where did these cultists come from? Is the being they worship real? It’s very much the same style of world-building as the Continental Hotel from Wick, where the audience is left to put the -pieces together, while not being directly spoon-fed the information. It’s a clever approach, one that treats the viewer as an intelligent equal, rather than simply a target to be entertained.
I could spend hours talking about how amazing this movie is, but honestly, it’s best just to see it for yourself. Words don’t really do it justice. It was meant to be experienced, not talked about, just like Cage himself. And I can only hope that this is the film that revitalizes Cage’s career critically, and allows us to enter a new era of Nic Cage perfection that the world sorely needs right now.
And as a reward for reading all of this, here is Nicolas Cage as Castor Troy from Face/Off, doing what he does best: Losing his goddamn mind.