For those who regret the slight note of subtlety and understatement that has crept into some of Nicolas Cage’s recent performances, “Mandy” will certainly provide a zany antidote. Panos Cosmatos’ movie about madness is itself quite mad, but it gives Cage the opportunity to deliver his most lunatic turn since “Vampire’s Kiss”—indeed, it rivals what he did in Robert Bierman’s 1989 camp classic, without quite equaling it.
In basic terms, this is a simple revenge story about a man out to kill his wife’s murderers, but it’s told in wildly overblown terms. Set in the Reagan years, it begins with a long prologue showing Red (Cage), a lumberjack, and his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), enjoying one another’s company in their isolated home in the Pacific Northwest. One day when Mandy is out jogging, she’s observed by a van full of cultists whose leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache) is immediately smitten with her. Her orders the followers of his Children of the New Dawn to abduct her and bring her to him; in the process they tie Red up, torture him and leave him to die. He doesn’t, of course.
Meanwhile Mandy is plied with drugs and even the venom of a wasp sting by Jeremiah’s chief witch Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré), but even with that encouragement she fails to respond to him as he had hoped. She is therefore burned to a cinder.
That prompts Red, crazed by what he’s witnessed and high on drugs, to take out after the cult. After dousing his wounds in alcohol, he visits an old friend (Bill Duke), who has been keeping a cache of weapons, including a prized crossbow, in storage for him in his trailer, and adds to the arsenal a special axe (which Cosmatos takes pains to depict being forged by hand). With these at the ready, Red proceeds to track down the villains and dispose of them one by one, though not without some setbacks along the way that result in still more injuries.
First he engages a group of demon bikers that Cage might well have recalled from his days as the Ghost Rider. (Just what sorts of beings they might be is never explained, but they are certainly formidable, death-resistant fellows.) After that he heads for the group’s hidden cave-chapel, where he uses his axe to decapitate Mother Marlene and several lesser adherents and engages in a one-on-one chainsaw fight with another (thus updating Chekhov’s dictum: if you show a chainsaw in Act I, it better be used by the end).
The final showdown, of course, is Red’s confrontation with Jeremiah, and here Roache goes for broke in a monologue that challenges Cage’s most outlandish moments. Alternately shrieking defiance, claiming divinity and pleading for his life, Jeremiah offers a sort of crazed apologia before Red seizes him and takes his ultimate vengeance.
Obviously it’s not the plot that distinguishes “Mandy,” it’s the movie’s rabid, feverish tone, with the images shot in saturated reds and gaudy animation interrupting the gruesome action to represent hallucinatory memories and longings. Gore, of course, is in ample supply, as are effects—though the latter are, one must admit, exceedingly low-grade (Jeremiah’s end is positively hilarious in that respect). The result is a revenge tale so wildly extravagant that it seems positively deranged.
One could find no actor more willing to fling himself into the spirit of Costamos’ goosed-up vision than Cage, and he will not disappoint his fans; for them, the scene in which, wearing his tighty whities, he douses his wounds in vodka while screaming in agony will alone justify the cost of admission. The surprise is that Roache, usually a subdued fellow, goes off the rails to such a degree, too. The rest of the cast do what’s demanded of them, which in Riseborough’s case means some awfully uncomfortable moments.
For Midnight Movie types, “Mandy” will be an answer to their prayers; for everybody else, Cosmatos’ flamboyant fever-dream will be an excruciating, stomach-churning nightmare.