I can’t help but feel there’s a sly political comment hiding in the “44” baseball jersey worn by a bloody Nicholas Cage as he sets out to exact revenge for the fiery execution of his girlfriend at the hands of a “crazy evil” van-load of Jesus freaks and acid-drenched hippies in Mandy, the hallucinogenic new horror film by director Panos Cosmatos.
“That was my favorite shirt,” Cage, as lumberjack Red Miller, informs the oozing Satan spawn who has just slashed poor Red across the chest as he sits with one arm handcuffed over his head, his other hand nailed, crucifixion-style, to the floor.
Tough spot to be in. Thanks, Obama.
But current politics be damned, literally, because Mandy is actually set in 1983, and we know this not only because the film tells us, but because early on we hear a televised broadcast of Ronald Reagan addressing the nation, speaking in sunshiny terms about how people are tired of “pornography and abortion” and blah blah blah.
Red and his girlfriend Mandy (a nearly translucent and wonderful Andrea Riseborough, of The Death of Stalin fame) are living far away from such trickle-down nonsense — in fact, the life they’ve created for themselves looks damn near Edenic, holed up as they are in a remote cabin in the woods, and so perfectly in love. She is an artist of air-brushy gothic dreamscapes, no doubt influenced by her obsession with the occult. Mandy, you see, is an ethereal, heavy-metal sort of girl, a dark-side-of-the-moon moonchild, and Red simply adores her.
But then Mandy, walking along the road one night, catches the eye of cult leader Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who instructs his minions to kidnap her, whatever the cost. And so henchman Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) conjures a demonic gang of bikers, whose price for arising is “blood for blood.” And all hell breaks loose.
Mandy is pure grindhouse madness, and it’s exhilarating. Co-written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, the film unleashes every B-movie trick in the book — animated sequences, unapologetic gore, outrageous comedy, breathless action, druggy phantasmagoria — and yet, for all its excesses, it remains somehow tasteful, never trafficking in the gratuitous. Its amorality is deeply moral, and the artistic choices Cosmatos makes are exquisite. The film transcends the self-consciousness of camp through a rigorous application of aesthetic certainties, like Evil Dead meets The Wild Bunch.
“You’re a vicious snowflake,” Red tells the demon who shreds his “44” shirt, and from this point on — about the halfway point — the movie coils up and springs, transforming itself into a compressed revenge fantasy that doubles as one man’s descent into the underworld.
Cosmatos waste no time getting where he wants to go; the editing is rapid and blunt, almost post-narrative, moving like a comic-book slideshow meant only to titillate and satisfy. The economy of the storytelling approaches ridiculousness, which suits the film’s atmosphere perfectly. It is relentless. You can’t look away.
At the center of all this chaos, of course, stands Cage — the aggrieved everyman, a bit dull in daily life until pushed utterly beyond his limits, at which point he becomes the embodiment of human insult, a raw nerve reflecting the world’s bullshit in a funhouse mirror of noisy rage.
Jack Nicholson was good at this sort of thing, but Cage is even better, or at least more familiar: Most of us look more like Cage than Nicholson when we lose our shit, an eruption that usually combines melodramatic pathos with the antic slapstick of aggrieved outrage, all of it undergirded by a righteous indignation that is undeniable, if not irrefutable.
Cage, at once utterly unhinged and manically focused, has never been better, but his acting (I want to say “acting out”) is sweetened and spiced up by a pair of equally admirable performances. As Mandy, Riseborough is enthralling, the haunting embodiment of Medieval painting, forever threatening to evanesce into the spirit realm. She’s perfect for the role.
And Roache, playing a two-bit lysergic anti-Christ with a Napoleon complex, presents a chilling portrait of pathological narcissism run amok: thin-skinned and murderous, grandiose and fragile, he’s a little man with a charismatic front whose followers are hypnotized by their own rampant fear of falling afoul of his erratic temper. You know, like other vicious snowflakes we know and fear.
In a world as scary as this one is right now, Mandy makes an intuitive sort of sense. Like Fargo (both the movie and the series) or No Country for Old Men, Cosmatos’ movie confronts unmitigated evil with a kind of pedestrian goodness — but unlike those two films, it takes that goodness, gives it a killer hit of acid and a wicked crossbow, and then drags it kicking and screaming to a place beyond good and evil, where the only proper response is an equal and annihilating insanity.
Thank God it’s only a movie. Art, and Nicholas Cage, go where we dare not. And it’s a gruesome, crazy, funny good time — a carnival ride through the dark side of vengeance. (Sneak preview 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 13, at Broadway Metro, opens Friday)