Here’s an exercise: 211, Looking Glass, The Runner, The Humanity Bureau, Inconceivable, Vengeance: A Love Story, Army of One, Dog Eat Dog, The Trust, Pay the Ghost. Did you get it? Yes, those are all low-budget movies that Nicolas Cage has starred in lately, and I defy you to tell me the plot of any of them without resorting to Wikipedia or IMDb. All this detritus has been necessitated by the actor’s well-documented financial difficulties, and it has obscured his infrequent good films like David Gordon Green’s drama Joe. Another one of those is the surreal horror flick Mandy, which opens at Alamo Drafthouse Denton and other locations this week and richly deserves to be better known than Cage’s other movies, mostly because it has him stabbing a biker in a gimp suit repeatedly while screaming “Give me back my shirt!” Yeah, long story.
Cage stars as a lumberjack named Red, who lives in a secluded forest with Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). However, a long-haired religious cult leader named Jeremiah (a terrifying Linus Roache) spots her walking along a trail and calls on his biker dudes to abduct her. After the cult ritually murders her in front of Red, he starts taking revenge on the cultists with various knives, a crossbow, and a steel scythe that he smelts and hammers out for himself.
This is the work of director/co-writer Panos Cosmatos, who previously made the visually striking but narratively impenetrable 2011 science-fiction film Beyond the Black Rainbow. (Fun fact: He’s the son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed Rambo.) The revenge element in this movie gives it a structure that Cosmatos’ previous work didn’t have, though newcomers may still be frustrated by his glacial pacing. This reminds me of Nicolas Winding Refn films like Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives, where horrible stuff unfolds in an agonizingly slow fashion for us while lit up in red. Cosmatos’ compositions are painterly as he depicts the fog rolling in the forest or superimposes Roache’s face over Riseborough’s to play up their resemblance while Jeremiah talks about how Jesus has given him dominion over everything in the world. The visual rigor here and the synth-and-guitar-rock score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (the last that the Icelandic composer completed before his death) makes you feel like you’ve fallen into a peculiar corner of Hell where slimy, scaly demons drive up to your house on ATVs.
In this environment, Cage’s typically berserk performance fits in perfectly, and to good effect in a lengthy scene after Mandy is killed, when Red goes into his house and screams in rage and grief while downing a whole bottle of vodka. Cosmatos cuts the horror with bits of deliberate weirdness like the ATVs, or when a cult member says, “This is a situation not ideal,” just before Red plunges a spear into his mouth and out the back of his head. The climactic duel between Red and another bad guy has both of them armed with chainsaws. It feels like the whole reason that the movie was made, but Cosmatos doesn’t forget to infuse the whole thing with a palpable sense of loss, as Red is haunted by nightmares of the dead Mandy, which are illustrated via comic book-style animated sequences. Mandy has echoes of Hollywood stuff that’s out now like The Predator and Peppermint, but its compelling strangeness gives it a power that those others can’t hope to match. Plus, y’know, chainsaws.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, and Linus Roache. Directed by Panos Cosmatos. Written by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn. Not rated.