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Mandy

The revenge thriller. A genre that lives and dies on the volume of its carnage and the novelty of its kills. The story itself is almost an afterthought, as any character development or complicated plot setups could distract from the violence we came to see. Thus the entire plot revolves around a protagonist who’s lost something and a villain who took the thing for no reason at all. There’s never any doubt who we’re rooting for, who we’re rooting against, why the characters are doing anything, or why we should care. This is practically as simple as it gets.

But oh, how the genre has become problematic in recent times.

For example, Upgrade was a recent revenge thriller that was utterly phenomenal… except for the part where a main female character only existed so she could be fridged. That “fridged” is even a word at all — a relatively new phrase, meaning to introduce a female character purely so she can be killed and/or maimed solely to motivate the male protagonist — should prove why a revenge thriller is a dicey proposition in these more enlightened feminist times. Because historically, the trope is for an uber-macho hero to go slaying armies over a wife, daughter, girlfriend, etc.

That said, there have been exceptions in recent years. The Revenant was a notable revenge thriller that didn’t even have any female characters to speak of. We’ve also got John Wick, in which the character isn’t avenging the death of his wife, but the destruction of certain things adjacent to his dead wife. Even Peppermint knew enough to flip the script and make the protagonist a woman avenging her slain loved ones.

But here we are with Mandy, a revenge thriller about a man avenging his murdered wife. Also, the man is played by Nicolas Cage, whose presence isn’t nearly the certification of quality it used to be. Ever since his crippling financial and legal problems in 2009, Cage has been headlining whatever blockbusters or DTV dreck will meet his quote. Couple that with Cage’s notoriously unhinged screen presence and there’s simply no telling what we’re going to get with a Nicolas Cage picture. Even when we know exactly what we’re going to get from a Nicolas Cage performance.

Mandy is the sophomore effort of writer/director Panos Cosmatos, who made his debut in 2010 with a trippy-as-hell instant cult favorite called Beyond the Black Rainbow. He’s also the son of the late George Cosmatos, director of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra, both movies emblematic of the ’80s and the Sly Stallone action flick. Throw all of these movies into a pot, then mix it in with the wide-eyed unflinching lunacy of a Nicolas Cage performance, and that’s pretty much exactly what we’ve got with this picture.

The movie opens with a quotation: “When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock and roll me when I’m dead.” The quotation isn’t sourced, but those were the last words of Douglas Roberts, right before he was executed in 2005 for the kidnapping, robbery, and murder of a 40-year-old man. The opening credits come immediately afterward… but the credits stop abruptly with the story credit. The main title isn’t shown until 75 minutes in, and the director credit is only shown at the very end.

You may think that sounds weird. And it is. But we’ve barely gotten started.

Cage plays Red Miller, with Andrea Riseborough playing his partner/girlfriend, the eponymous Mandy. What’s perhaps most interesting about Mandy is that she’s not portrayed as some flawless angel the way most other movies in the genre would. Her hair is tousled, she dresses in worn-out Black Sabbath shirts, she reads pulp fantasy novels, and she doesn’t seem to wear any makeup at all. There’s more to this character beneath the surface, and that has to do pretty much entirely with Riseborough herself. It says a lot about her screen presence that she can look so ratty and plain, and yet effortlessly command attention with nothing but a look. Plus, she and Cage have more than enough chemistry to make the plot work.

What’s more, Mandy absolutely comes off as a fleshed-out character in her own right and not just a plot device for the male lead to get upset over. Though mostly, that has to do with how much screen time she has. Any other revenge thriller would kill the romantic lead at the fifteen-minute mark, or maybe even the thirty-minute mark. In this movie, Mandy gets a solid hour of screen time before she dies. This is a two-hour movie, and the story could’ve easily been compressed into 100 minutes, or maybe even 90. But that slow burn is also a central part of what makes the film stand out.

At its heart and core, this is a movie about a man who goes out seeking revenge after his wife is killed by a renegade religious cult (led by Jeremiah Sand, played to the cheap seats by Linus Roache). Most other filmmakers would deliver such a tired and flimsy premise by taking it seriously to the point where it goes back around to camp, and this movie does indeed take that approach at times. (More on that later.) But mostly, this movie takes a unique and different approach: Getting high as balls.

The lighting is oversaturated with reds, blues, and shadows. The editing is full of long, slow shots. The score (one of the last by Johann Johannsson, who died in February 2018 long before his time) is a synth-heavy trance-like piece of work, clearly inspired by the likes of Vangelus and Tangerine Dream. Put it all together with the languid pace and the premise of a death cult that may or may not have paranormal connections, and you’ve got all the makings of a film that’s trippy as fuck. While the filmmakers never even try at building a coherent plot and the themes may be opaque (or non-existent), the imagery is so compelling and creative that it’s worth sticking around just to see what’ll get thrown at the screen next.

I mean, this movie has a motorcycle gang that looks and acts like Lord Humongous got his hands on the Lament Configuration. If you don’t think that’s worth the cost of admission… well, how about Nicolas Cage in a chainsaw duel? Because that totally happens. I’m not even kidding.

Cage isn’t really let off his leash until the halfway point, but it’s like he’s acting in a completely different movie when he finally gets going. There’s no stopping the man when he gets into his overacting schtick — it comes to him as naturally as breathing, nobody does it better, and it’s what the audience came to see. Cage is assisted in this by an awesomely campy supporting turn from Bill Duke, and the most impractically stupid yet impossibly badass bladed weapon I’ve seen since the bat’leth.

Yet by the time Cage really gets going, the filmmakers had already spent a solid hour shattering any baseline of reality. It speaks volumes about the movie that Nicolas freaking Cage — grinning, bug-eyed, blood-soaked Nicolas Cage — is the least crazy motherfucker in this movie after Mandy gets killed. He’s acting aggressively serious to the point of camp, while the rest of the movie around him is aggressively weird to the point of nonsensical, and the two approaches work together surprisingly well together. Sure, it’s all an incoherent and totally batshit mishmash, but at least it’s entertainingly so.

Mandy exists. That’s really all I can say about it, in the final analysis. I’m glad that I saw a movie so completely unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t know how badly I needed to see Nicolas Cage in a chainsaw duel until the scene was right there in front of me. For better and for worse, this is a bizarre movie with a deliberately slow pace that brazenly defies any kind of conventional norm. This is not a movie for the faint of heart, who could easily be turned away by grotesque imagery. It’s not a movie for those who demand any semblance of a conventional narrative in their stories. It’s not even a movie for those who demand thoughtful or creative themes in works of fiction — the premise is much too thin to support that.

If you want to see Nicolas Cage doing what he does best (I want to say it again: Chainsaw duel.) and you want to see a movie that doesn’t look or sound like anything else out there, those are your reasons for seeing this movie. Preferably on home video, which should help make the slower pacing more palatable.

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