Blood-Soaked 'Mandy' Is the Best Nicolas Cage Movie in Years

Courtesy of RLJE Films
Courtesy of RLJE Films

Note: This review originally ran during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018. Mandy is now playing in select theaters and is available to rent or purchase via iTunes, Amazon, and OnDemand platforms. We highly recommend it. And once you've seen it, you'll want to read more about the movie, and especially Cheddar Goblin.

There's a moment about midway through Mandy, director Panos Cosmatos's heavy-metal John Wick-ian fever dream that debuted at Sundance on Friday night at midnight, where Nicolas Cage, wearing only white briefs and a sweat-stained t-shirt with a tiger on it, guzzles a bottle of vodka, howls in pain, and, for a few seconds, stares directly into your soul. The 54-year-old actor vibrates with emotion, transforming into a vessel of anger, despair, and madness. His face is coated in a thin film of blood, sweat, and tears. The three mix together to form a mask of rage. A shield of human need. An existential warpaint.

After years in the wilderness, Nicolas Cage has his swagger back.

It was inevitable. There comes a time in many movie stars' late career periods when critics and fans begin to speak of them using the same half-hearted qualifiers we use to talk about long-running, possibly over-the-hill rock bands. Superlatives like "This is the best U2 album since Achtung Baby," "best R.E.M. record since New Adventures in Hi-Fi," or "best Rolling Stones album in… decades," are used to describe work that may or may not actually recapture the glory days of yore. You've seen it happen with actors as universally celebrated Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, or Jack Nicholson. Now it's Cage's turn.

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RLJE Films/YouTube

Your exact point of reference for what Cage's most recent peak was may vary. For my money, the psychedelic revenge narrative of Mandy is probably the best Cage movie in over a decade -- probably since Adaptation in 2002. As Red Miller, a humble lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest circa 1983, he gets to be a quiet romantic and a violent lunatic. It's in the same wild-eyed, gonzo vein as his iguana-hallucinating turn in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but there's also a tenderness to this coke-sniffing, biker-slaughtering odyssey. This is the most poignant, emotionally raw movie with a chainsaw fight I've ever seen.

When we first meet Red, he's finishing a long day's work chopping down trees. A buddy offers him a beer, but he turns it down: He's heading home to be with Mandy, the Mötley Crüe loving, fantasy book reading love of his life played by Andrea Riseborough. In their house, the two live a quiet life of domestic bliss, sharing offbeat knock-knock jokes and hushed confessions in the night. The beginning of Mandy, which some critics have decried as too slow, has a soothing, pastoral quality that you'll either go with or not. Think of it as Cosmatos's version of Black Sabbath's "Orchid." I found it completely transfixing and necessary to frame up the mayhem that follows. 

Mandy movie
RLJE Films

Soon enough, chaos arrives in the form of the Black Skulls, a Manson-esque crew led by a long-haired, art-folk-singing hippie named Jeremiah (an unnerving Linus Roache). The group targets Mandy, kidnapping her and eventually burning her alive in front of Red, forcing him to watch as she becomes a sacrifice to their twisted ideology. The booze-chugging scene then follows and the movie shifts into an increasingly deranged second half defined by Red's quest for vengeance and his loosening grip on reality itself.

Similarly, the arc of Cage's career bends towards oblivion. It's not that the actor has abandoned the peculiar timing and oily charm that made him such a compelling screen presence in early comedies like Raising Arizona or Moonstruck. He certainly hasn't lost the taste for the absurd that powered mischievously overblown '90s spectacles like The Rock, Con Air, or Face/Off. However, the last decade, which has featured apocalyptic duds like Knowing and Left Behind, has been challenging for him. In between tepid blockbusters like the National Treasure series or The Sorcerer's Apprentice, he found time for underrated indies like 2013's Joe or 2016's Dog Eat Dog. But it was hard not to feel like he was becoming a parody of himself.

What does Mandy have that many of Cage's other recent genre experiments lack? A director who can out-weird him, which he's found in Cosmatos, the filmmaker behind 2010's sci-fi mind-bender Beyond the Black Rainbow. Filled with oddities like animated interludes, a commercial parody, and a fight scene with a mutant biker where porn plays in the background, Mandy is delightfully strange in an almost primal, mythological way. Above all else, it's a stellar example of how to use the Cage star persona to brilliant ends. His redemption becomes your salvation.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.