Let us assert that Nicolas Cage is at his most essential when you either love him or hate him. Think of his blood-drinking executive in Vampire’s Kiss, or his Wild at Heart outlaw, or his tragically flop-sweat-soaked screenwriter in Adaptation. Even his best romantic leads have a screw loose, as in Moonstruck or Peggy Sue Got Married. Just ask his Peggy Sue co-star Kathleen Turner, who stated in a recent (and hilariously candid) interview that “It was tough not to say ‘Cut it out’ ” when Cage gave his character a strangled voice only a mother could love.
Mandy returns Cage to his proper wildness. A candidate for future cult status and a film guaranteed to divide audiences, Mandy gives Cage an intriguing challenge: He must bury his busier mannerisms in service of a character who’s a quiet recluse, but the unfiltered 100-proof Nic Cage madness must glint from between the cracks. And this movie’s got plenty of cracks.
Cage and Andrea Riseborough play Red and Mandy, a couple living in the rural Pacific Northwest. Red works as a lumberjack, and Mandy reads fantasy novels while holding down a job at a country store. It’s 1983, so cell phones can’t mess up the plot. Riseborough—who played royal consort Wallis Simpson in W.E. and Stalin’s daughter in The Death of Stalin—is uncannily good as the kind of bright, spacey loner who doesn’t do small talk and sticks with the parted-in-the-middle hairstyle she preferred as an adolescent. As alien as these two might be to the rest of the world, their supportive relationship is oddly touching.
Then something bad happens: a Manson-like cult grows interested in Mandy, and the film’s second half turns Red into an unholy avenger. Cage, fitted out in extra bulk and a backwoods beard, embraces Red’s fuming crusader, his crazy smile beaming from a blood-caked face. Linus Roache (late of Homeland) is splendidly creepy as the cult leader, part megachurch preacher and part lounge lizard.
Even the pleasure of Cage in his element is upstaged by director Panos Cosmatos’ visual design, a blend of 1970s Italian horror and acid trip. Well before the movie becomes violent, we’re already far away from normal existence, as the screen fills with blurry interiors and color-saturated light; certain scenes look like they’ve been dipped in Easter egg dye. Cosmatos, whose debut film was Beyond the Black Rainbow and whose father directed the massive Rambo: First Blood Part II, walks a fine line between the cool and the ridiculous, and then finally erases the line.
Did I love or hate it? I’m definitely on the love side of the ledger, given the commitment of the performers and the general all-or-nothing approach. Certain moments create real goosebumps: When Roache’s self-appointed alpha male goes into one of his rants, expecting to be worshipped as usual, Mandy laughs in his face—a great unexpected moment, and exactly what a tinpot dictator deserves. And when Red decides to forge his own sword of vengeance, like a character from one of Mandy’s novels, genre-movie fans will find themselves in ecstasy. Cool and ridiculous ecstasy.