When Beyond The Black Rainbow director Panos Cosmatos approached Nicolas Cage to appear in his sophomore feature film, the beloved actor accepted on the condition that he play not the maniacal cult leader and designated bad guy of the story, but his nemesis, a man heartbroken by the loss of his wife.
Though it has been an element in many of his best roles, this sensitive side of Cage’s screen persona often takes the backseat in appreciations of his acting style. Most fans feel more inclined to admire his characteristic Cage-isms. We all delight in those moments of cinematic madness where his performance becomes utterly unpredictable, almost theatrical in intensity, and absolutely hilarious — but also oddly beautiful, due to Cage’s utter dedication to his craft.
Mandy is that rare film which allows him to explore both sides of his talent in equal measures, across two distinct narrative sections. The film’s first half focuses on Red (a perfect name for Cage) but also, and to a greater extent, on his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). While Red spends his days cutting down giant trees in the forest, she works in a drugstore and explores her passion for the occult. Sketching fantastic imagery of women, wolves and moons, or intently reading obscure fantasy novels, her interest in the mystical seems to stem not from a desire to shut herself off from the world, but from a genuine interest in it — in opening her imagination, her sensibility and compassion.
Along with the film’s total focus on this woman, Riseborough’s nuanced performance imbues the character with a richness that allows her to avoid the cliche of the younger, beautiful wife, and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It also helps that Mandy loves prog rock, a genre of music that might not be the most popular right now. The film takes place in 1983, and the heavy synths and rock tones (notably those of King Crimson) beautifully complement the stylised visuals and slower pace of the film’s first half, hypnotising us into a dreamlike state and bringing us closer to Mandy’s own sensitive approach towards the world around her.
This first section is nothing short of a love letter to Mandy — she is, after all, the titular character — and the tenderness with which she is portrayed echoes Red’s own loving attitude towards her. Lying in bed or watching television with Mandy, we have rarely seen Cage so gentle and peaceful in a role, and so convincingly romantic.
This portion of the film might feel a little long, but it sets the foundations on which the second half rests. When Mandy is kidnapped by a cult of pseudo-hippies, the sadness of her absence is truly felt. Yet this part is also more playful, and the film marks the transition in a mesmerising sequence of pure Cage delirium that is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. The spectacle of Cage crying, screaming, and drinking vodka all at the same time, while standing in the middle of a garish 80s bathroom, lingers long in the memory.
Red then sets off to get his revenge, murdering members of the cult and of the killing squad that helped them one by one. A beautiful homage to the perpetually underrated Hellraiser, this death trio is the first to be annihilated in increasingly gruesome and hilarious ways which shall not be spoilt here. The cult itself is even more grotesque, with leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) a clear satire of Charles Manson, and the other members recalling both the famous murderer’s ‘family’ and that from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The film never abandons its love of the fantastic — in fact, Red’s rage is animated by the same passion. Unlike him, Jeremiah does not truly care for the mystical, but (mis)uses it for his own selfish and ultimately self-destructive ends. As Red explains, “The psychotic drowns where the mystic swims” — a quote that also reads like a succinct description of the method in Cage’s madness. A mesmerising visual and sonic experience, Mandy rises well above its grindhouse niche.