Nicolas Cage is renowned for his weirdness, both on-screen (“Not the bees!!”) and off-screen (he reportedly bought an octopus so he could improve his acting method by studying another lifeform). His peculiar streak is the defining quality of his public persona. Throughout his storied, decades-long career, Cage has starred in some of the greatest movies ever made and some of the worst movies ever made. He gave a powerful Oscar-winning performance as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, but he also bumbled his way through two Ghost Rider movies struggling to adapt the hard-R demonic character in a PG-13 context.
Love him or hate him, Cage is an undeniably unique actor. Nobody approaches their roles the way Cage does. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a separate discussion, but Cage always brings something unexpected to his performances, which at least warrants some appreciation. Ever since Cage’s stardom gave him the clout to shop around for projects (and a schedule that somehow allows him to make seven or eight movies a year), he’s been taking on increasingly bizarre, original material. From the Lovecraftian terror of Color Out of Space to the pitch-black humor of Mom and Dad, Cage has carved out a very specific niche of the movie market. The pinnacle of Cage’s idiosyncratic on-screen insanity is arguably Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy.
First released in 2018, Mandy is a grisly revenge thriller about a man’s quest to avenge his wife after she’s murdered by a ritualistic cult. The distinctly mind-boggling visual style that Cosmatos introduced in his debut movie Beyond the Black Rainbow is defined more clearly in Mandy, his second feature-length effort. Nic Cage has made a lot of crazy movies in his day, but with action sequences like a drug-fueled fight to the death and a night-time chainsaw duel, Mandy is without a doubt the craziest.
The opening scenes of Mandy introduce viewers to the titular character and her boyfriend, Red, who are madly in love and enjoy a reclusive existence in the woods in the early ‘80s. Red is a lumberjack and recovering alcoholic and Mandy is a fantasy artist reeling from childhood trauma. One day, Mandy catches the eye of a cult leader, Jeremiah Sand, who teams up with a demonic biker gang to kidnap her. Sand drugs Mandy and tries to win her over, but fails to do so and ends up brutally killing her. Red is tied to a tree and forced to watch as Mandy is burned alive.
This first half of the movie is admittedly pretty slow-paced, but its gonzo visuals and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s synth-heavy score are mesmerizing enough to take you along for the ride. And once it gets into the second half, it becomes a relentless, blood-drenched road to revenge. Red stops by his friend’s place to pick up some weapons, then goes after the cult and their demonic biker friends singlehandedly.
There’s a sumptuous layer of film grain over every image and Cosmatos heavily saturates the colors. Bright red fills the screen throughout Cage’s vengeful crusade as he’s covered head-to-toe in the blood of his enemies. And unlike a lot of nonstop action movies, Mandy never gets repetitive. Each enemy Red faces on his way to confront Sand presents a unique challenge. Along the way, he meets all kinds of memorable supporting characters, like “The Chemist” and his pet tiger – there isn’t a dull moment in the movie’s sleek two-hour runtime.
While Mandy is undoubtedly Cage’s craziest movie, the actor’s wide-ranging 40-year filmography is filled with close contenders for that title. The Coen brothers’ slapstick comedy Raising Arizona tells the story of an ex-con (Cage) and his cop wife (Holly Hunter), who resort to kidnapping a baby when they want to start a family and they can’t conceive or adopt. David Lynch’s surreal road movie Wild at Heart follows a young, passionate couple – Sailor, played by Cage, and Lula, played by Laura Dern – who go on the run as Lula’s overbearing mother (played by Dern’s own mother Diane Ladd) sends hitmen to kill Sailor. Michael Bay’s exhilarating action thriller The Rock sees Cage playing FBI scientist Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, who teams up with Sean Connery’s SAS badass John Mason, the only inmate to ever escape Alcatraz, when the former prison island is taken over by diabolical terrorists. In Kick-Ass, Cage plays an R-rated riff on Batman. In Adaptation, he plays the neurotic screenwriter of the movie itself and his fictional twin brother, Donald.
But in spite of all these wonderfully weird movies, Mandy remains the wildest of the bunch. The whole movie feels like a morose, blood-soaked acid trip. Cage’s commitment to Red’s unforgiving rage gives Mandy’s otherworldly visuals a grounding in reality. Underneath the oddball images of S&M demon bikers and LSD-induced hallucinations, the emotional crux of Mandy is Red’s quest for revenge. Thanks to Cage’s dedication, Red’s love for Mandy is real and his grief after she’s murdered is real and his irrepressible urge to slaughter everybody responsible is real. This movie is an unforgettable experience.