There comes a time in an actor’s career where their name alone gives a clear enough indication of what kind of movie to expect. Nicolas Cage reached that point a long time ago — so long ago that you’d be forgiven for thinking he couldn’t possibly make another movie that is just so, well, Cage. And yet, Panos Cosmatos’ new film, Mandy, exists.
It’s a simple premise: Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are in love. They live in a secluded cabin in the woods in blissful harmony, until their tender idyll is destroyed by a manic sect who brutally murder the eponymous lover. And naturally, Red being heartbroken and Cage being Cage, he seeks revenge and things kick off in a spectacular fashion.
But what seems simple on paper exists in entirely its own cinematic realm, in Cosmatos’ electrifying hands. The director creates a fascinatingly psychedelic world; through vivid hues and experimental effects, reality blurs with the promise of phantasmagoric horror. It’s at once a nightmare and a hallucinatory heaven, which encourages the hopeful small talk between Red and Mandy about their favourite planets and childhood hardships, while never losing sight of the approaching faction that’s on a religious mission to ruin it all.
Led by Linus Roache’s unhinged cult leader, Jeremiah Sand, the killers (aka Children of the New Dawn) are born from a fabric of body horror and cult sci-fi iconography. Erratic and nasty, they operate with a brutality that anchors the genre tropes, with an undying loyalty for their Manson-esque ruler, and unforgiving violence towards everyone else. Their characterisation successfully pushes the limits of fear and often sways all the way back around into grotesque humour. They’re an endlessly meme-able pack, a guaranteed Halloween group costume hit just waiting to happen.
Riseborough leads the first half of Mandy, carrying her performance with the elegance which is emblematic of gothic femininity. Somewhere between Shelley Duvall in The Shining and Suspiria’s Jessica Harper, Riseborough is convincing enough to make Mandy’s killing feel emotional. The love story with Red isn’t built on the strongest foundations, as Cosmatos’ dialogue isn’t quite mature enough to be taken completely seriously. But Mandy isn’t about a meet-cute; it’s about love, and it’s about the lengths you go to when yours is violently taken away.
On his revenge rampage that drenches the latter half of the film in gore and ridicule, Cage is at home. In a pivotal moment of all-out slapstick, Red is roaring in anger, pants down in his garishly claustrophobic bathroom. His anger is justified but played out with insanity, creating a cathartic experience of sheer exuberance. With cult insults and savage killings being thrown around with childlike glee, it’s difficult to synthesize the rambunctious energy. It’s enjoyable, but only if you’re prepared.
Mandy lives off its thrilling score, the final completed composition from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. When introducing the film in Cannes, Cosmatos revealed that the story idea came after the death of his parents, and the process of grief in mourning a loved one. It’s unconventional and provocative, but with such a powerfully invigorating narration and clear passion between the lines, Mandy feels like an explosive liberation.
Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is a film critic and photographer based in London. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film & TV studies and maintains a passionate love for good design and great relationships on screen. She writes about film, TV and music for Little White Lies, the Independent and Into the Fold.