‘You should go in knowing that your odds aren’t that good. And you will probably die.” So warned, Nicolas Cage heads into the inferno in Mandy, a barnburner of a midnight movie set in a dreamlike forest primeval that has become the host to an LSD-crazed biker gang of Jesus freaks with bad intentions. It is, we are told at the outset, “The Shadow Mountains, A.D. 1983.”
The cry going around the critical schoolyard is that, on the strength of this spectacularly bloody and nerve-filleting horror flick, “Nicolas Cage is back.” This is quite wrong. Cage never went anywhere (he’s had 14 movie credits just since 2016, mostly in schlocky genre movies) and his typically gonzo performance is the weakest aspect of Mandy (which is being released in a few theaters and via video-on-demand). You can see what attracted him to the film: the opportunity to, for instance, have a screaming fit while seated on a toilet in his tighty-whities, pouring vodka all over his many wounds and down his throat. And few among us could turn down a script that offers a chance for the leading man to light his cigarette from the flaming corpse of an enemy freshly vanquished. Although Cage can still exercise restraint as an actor (see, for instance, 2013’s Joe), his instinct is to overplay drama to such a hysterical degree that he’s essentially winking at himself and inviting the audience to have a giggle.
No, Cage is not the story here. Someone else is: the film’s mad-genius co-writer and director Panos Cosmatos. The next time you hear his name, I expect it will be attached to a much bigger picture than this low-budget but extremely high-impact tour de force.
The surname may be familiar: Cosmatos, who lives in Vancouver, is the son of the late George P. Cosmatos, who directed Tombstone and Rambo: First Blood Part II. The younger man’s only previous film, Beyond the Black Rainbow, was released in 2010. It took eight years to get this one made. With Mandy we see an artist in full flower, albeit a flower that spurts blood. Eyeballs get gouged. Cage gets an arterial spray in his face (causing him to, of course, laugh maniacally). The film is way too sanguinary to achieve an R rating, hence its being released unrated. If simulated gore bothers you, well, I believe the new Mamma Mia movie is still playing.
Using nothing more elaborate than basic A/V club tricks such as colored filters and slow motion, Cosmatos creates a lush, eerie sylvan dreamscape where Red Miller (Cage) lives a life of idyllic stillness with his lady, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Cosmatos’s imagery is hypnotic, made even more gripping by a musical score from the late Icelander Johann Johannsson, whose last film this is. Johansson engineers a sound reminiscent of early-’80s synthesizer-based scores laced with slow-acting poison: long, slow chords of dread and foreboding. Then, a title flashes on the screen: In a demented heavy-metal font suggesting the cover of a Motley Crue album, we learn that the Children of the New Dawn have arrived. They’re a freaky Christian cult in a van led by a lunatic would-be messiah (Linus Roache).
Like many others in the post–Quentin Tarantino generation of filmmakers, Cosmatos revels in the lowbrow thrills of 1970s-style drive-in movies even as he’s slyly mocking their conventions with operatic exaggeration. Red doesn’t just fight back, he tracks down a prophetic old man in a trailer (a superb Bill Duke, underplaying nicely against Cage’s theatrics) and announces, “I came for . . . the Reaper.” The old man has some suggestions for other weaponry, such as an item that can “cut through bone like a fat kid through cake.” Red doesn’t just assemble his medieval armaments, he forges them. In an actual forge. (I don’t know why he has a forge either, or where the tiger came from: Don’t take things overly literally, we’re in a land of the murky red subconscious.) Cosmatos has said one of his inspirations was the 1982 film The Sword and the Sorcerer, so Cage is his reckless, relentless knight. But in style the film carries more of a hazy David Lynch aura, caught between reality and myth.
Though many filmmakers share Tarantino’s fondness for exploitation cinema, few share his subtle wit or his gift for arch dialogue. Cosmatos does, and like Tarantino he has so many great ideas some get relegated to the background. I loved Mandy’s freaky parody of a 1980s kiddie commercial, starring a dyspeptic goblin, seemingly a reference to the strange historical moment when there was a breakfast cereal named for the homicidal imps of Gremlins. Mandy is, like that weird little goblin, a thing of demon energy and murderous concentration, eager to get on with the business of messing with you. It’s one of the wildest, weirdest, most exciting movies of the year.