In “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” in 2016, Nicolas Cage fought sharks. Perhaps he learned from them how some species must keep moving to survive. Throughout his long and varied career, Cage has continued to swim. The waters – and the roles – keep getting wilder.
It’s been an odd ride for the actor, both on and off screen, from geek idol to action star to straight-to-video downfall. . . wherever he is now, currently watching none other than actor Nicolas Cage in the meta-movie “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”. To survive as an artist, you have to change. But earlier in his career, I didn’t think much of Cage, dismissing him as prolific if not particularly moving, until one film showed his bloody power above all else, not just for rage but for love: “Mandy “.
In fact, in “Massive Talent,” Cage superfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) also makes sure to single out “Mandy.” Although Javi cites John Woo’s 1997 action thriller “Face/Off” as his favorite film from his idol, he acknowledges that “Mandy” is underrated.
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Famous, Cage was born into a show biz family, the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and the cousin of Sofia Coppola and Roman Coppola. He changed his last name, as writer Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, would do to avoid accusations of nepotism, after he begged his uncle Francis to give him a screen test as a teenager. Cage based his stage name on Marvel superhero Luke Cage and composer John Cage.
James Dean inspired Cage to act, and in early performances, Cage has a kind of floppy-haired nonchalance, like this acting job was easy, no problem. And then there’s “Mandy.”
It’s a world of trust and security they’ve built with each other – and it’s temporary, of course.
It’s hard to explain Panos’ 2018 film Cosmatos, co-written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn. It’s either your kind of thing or it’s not. “Mandy” is another world both close and very far from ours. The film is divided into parts: The Shadow Mountains, Children of the New Dawn and Mandy. I wish I could live in the first part. But all of us who are not men live in the last. Cage navigates all three with ease.
Set “circa 1983 AD” in a forest that could be the Pacific Northwest, the film begins with Cage as Red, a soulful lumberjack. Red’s romantic partner is Mandy (the haunting Andrea Riseborough), an artist who works at an outback shop day and night, reading and drawing fantastic illustrations. Mandy is interested in astronomy, and she and Red share a love of science fiction. They are watching a sci-fi movie, joking about Galactus.
They also seem to share violent pasts: red can be a recovering alcoholic, and Mandy survived a childhood scarred by an abusive father.
The couple live in a house with many windows that glows at night, pulsating with light and steam like a greenhouse. Or, like the chambers of a heart. They don’t have curtains. They live in such a remote place that Mandy leaves the door unlocked. In a presentiment of violence, Red wonders if they should move away, go somewhere else. But Mandy refuses to give up “our little house”.
One of the worlds of “Mandy” is the world of lovers: an isolated and rich embrace. The first part of the film drips with the richness of nature like a Maxfield Parrish painting: hills of pine trees, skies with clouds that have the strange green flush just after rain. Red and Mandy sleep surrounded by windows. They sail on an emerald lake – Crystal Lake – which dissolves in a shot of flames: a campfire. It’s a world of trust and security they’ve built with each other – and it’s temporary, of course.
Mandy catches a man’s eye.
Jeremiah strips naked in front of a captive and drugs Mandy after playing her one of his songs – a kind of “Frampton Comes Alive!” for worship leader set.
A failed musician and rising cult leader: Jeremiah Sand (the incredible Linus Roache). Jeremiah’s world is that of an ordinary narcissist posing as the messiah. He’s got a handful of followers in a “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” van.. And like Father Yod and Charles Manson (he even calls Red and Mandy pigs), he has an album. Jeremiah’s world includes a lot of drugs, keeping his followers in the haze and free love all to himself. His hair and makeup look like Iggy Pop left out in the rain, and he alternates between wearing a Luke Skywalker robe and tight Jimmy Page pants with a cross necklace. He is a mediocre man easily hurt.
But like the world of lovers with its Galactus, the world of the Children of the New Dawn, the cult of Jeremiah, also has its specific language, including the Horn of Abraxas, a kind of moon rock used to summon a biker gang that Jeremiah engages as muscle, and a knife described as the “pale knight’s tainted blade, straight out of the abyssal lair”.
Phrases like these sound like a marriage between heavy metal and LARPing – and with a certain tone, that would be funny. This is funny. And when Jeremiah strips naked in front of a captive and drugs Mandy after playing her one of his songs – a kind of “Frampton Comes Alive!” for the group of cult leaders – she has a natural, honest and simple reaction. She laughs.
As the apocryphal formula attributed to Margaret Atwood says: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. The women are afraid that the men will kill them.
In this world of men, humiliation is unforgivable. Women occupy only a few roles in Jeremiah’s mind; after all — he only has two female followers: an old woman (Olwen Fouéré, who is fascinating) and a young girl — and deviant is not one. Mandy becomes the only other thing a woman can be if she isn’t sexual: a witch to burn.
For all her red haze and LSD eaten like peanut butter, “Mandy” is ultimately a film about love.
Mandy already doesn’t fit in. Neither she nor Red are young and they don’t have children – aspects that I love about them as a couple. She makes art, reads, walks alone in the woods. She wears no makeup, and she has mismatched pupils and a long, jagged scar on her face that is unexplained; she just has it. She’s been through a lot, Mandy. But not that.
Red is immersed in the world of mourning, a mourning like I’ve never seen depicted so accurately, so painfully, on screen. It’s embarrassing, infuriating, real. It’s absurd, as death always is, and the final part of the film is the heavy metal world of blood revenge. Red also has his own named weapon, the Reaper, and he forges another: a silver axe. Things get pretty medieval with a knight and beheadings as Red navigates a landscape of tunnels and jagged cliffs as one of Mandy’s drawings comes to life. And if you think Cage isn’t the one sending a biker gang, you don’t know Cage.
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Despite the savagery of the film, it remains anchored thanks to its specificity. Nothing feels out of place – not a telepathic chemist, not a tiger, not the best chainsaw scene since “Evil Dead” – because that’s the table we’ve been laid.
In my work as a fiction writer, people are always asking questions about world-building. The truth is in two things: it has to be real to you and it has to be very specific. You have to choose raw elements and stick to them, refer to them in the same way every time. It’s the collage, the coherence, that makes a world real. So “Mandy” invents a sci-fi novelist – vibrant whole pages of her paperback – and a TV commercial for a demonic macaroni and cheese brand. It’s the 80s on an alternate timeline, possibly Berenstain Bears.
He also reinvents Cage, reborn as a gentle man with a searing, divine vengeance coursing through his veins, believable as a mere accidental action star, but a psychedelic folk horror hero. “Mandy” set the tone for Cage’s upcoming transformations, the soul of “Pig,” the laid-back desperation of “Willy’s Wonderland,” fully tapping Cage’s depths not just for mania but for silent suffering.
Because for all her red haze and LSD eaten like peanut butter, “Mandy” is ultimately a film about love and the wickedness of this world. And that makes it our world, really, and the one walking through it, wielding a bloodstained axe, bringing you home (at least in his nightmarish dreams) is Cage.
“Mandy” is currently available on demand.
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