MANDY is Nicolas Cage at His Best and Bloodiest (Sundance Review)

Sweet buttery Moses. Twelve hours after watching the midnight world premiere of Mandy at the Sundance Film Festival, I am still reeling from the sensory onslaught of Panos Cosmatos’ wild new film. My head is pounding and my heart is racing and I feel hungover, but I haven’t had a drop to drink and I’ve already acclimated to the altitude. No, this is the aftermath of one of the most audacious and exhilarating cinematic experiences I’ve had in ages. Mandy is by no means a perfect film and is likely going to turn off a fair number of viewers who aren’t on board for its concentrated, unadulterated weirdness. But for those who are willing to take the ride, you’re in for a bizarre, bloody treat featuring a particularly extra Nic Cage, giving his best performance in years. It’s an instant cult classic, and I mean that both literally and figuratively.

In order to properly describe the bloody, ultraviolet, psychedelic phantasmagoria of Mandy, one must channel Bill Hader’s classic SNL character Stefon. Sundance’s hottest midnight movie is Mandy. This movie has everything: an axe-wielding Nic Cage, demonic LSD bikers serving Cenobite realness, a psychosexual religious murdercult, Heavy Metal-esque animated sequences, and so much more. To use a filmmaking term, Mandy is bazoinkers. Cosmatos, who directed and co-worte the script with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is a filmmaker with a singular vision, one which is influenced by heavy metal iconography, old-school sci-fi and fantasy novels, and pretty much anything that you would want on the blacklight poster of your dreams (or nightmares, in this case). The result is a film that keeps the viewer off-balance as it slowly eases us into is gossamer, ethereal world full of otherworldly beauty and eldritch mysticism. Just when you think you’ve managed get your bearings, though, Cosmatos delivers a cinematic sucker punch, and both the action and intensity ratchet up exponentially until the film’s grisly finale.

Image: XYZ Films/SpectreVision/Umedia

Its story is fairly simple: in the Shadow Mountains in 1983, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) lives a quiet, blissful life with his girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough, who is lowkey conquering Sundance with 4 films in competition). They watch old sci-fi movies, pontificate about the planets and Galactus, and have a Zen-like existence far away from the hustle and bustle of society. But their perfect life is suddenly and violently rent asunder when the maniacal cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), his deranged zealots, and a band of seemingly abyssal horrors ruthlessly slaughter Mandy and leave Red for dead. Except they made one mistake: they didn’t finish the job. With his psyche shattered and his life in pieces, Red embarks on a one-man quest to exact brutal vengeance on those who wronged him.

One scene in particular, which features a bloodied, brutalized, pants-less Cage in a bathroom screaming, chugging vodka, and using said vodka to disinfect his wounds, is destined to become one of the all-time great Cage Rage moments in cinema history. Yet this is by no means a purely laughable moment; rather, it is an expression of rage, disbelief, grief–a supernova of emotions erupting all at once in what Cosmatos likens to a one-act play. While Cage carves a bloody swath through the film’s finale, wielding an gnarly battleaxe that he smelts himself as well as a menacing crossbow named “The Reaper,” his performance contains more nuance than meets the eye. As a man losing his grip on reality and descending into the base, violent impulses that fulminate and roil around in all of our lizard brains, Cage fully commits to the role and delivers a performance that is both staggering and staggeringly weird in the best way possible.

Although Riseborough’s screen time is abruptly cut short in order to serve the revenge narrative, her performance is haunting, endearing, and mesmerizing as she embodies the gauzy, unearthly aesthetic which Cosmatos strives to achieve. Another standout is Roache (Vikings), who plays the egomaniacal, murderous cult leader Jeremiah Sand as a mixture of Charles Manson, David Koresh, and Buffalo Bill. Roache’s performance is gleefully unhinged, oscillating wildly between moments of outsized narcissism, sniveling fragility, and overwhelming malice. A vile blend of hubris and charisma, Sand is reprehensible to his core, but one can easily see how he emotionally manipulates those around him into doing his bidding. Plus there’s a killer appearance from Bill Duke, who is always a pleasure to see whenever he graces the screen with his presence.

Image: XYZ Films/SpectreVision/Umedia

While the film is an absolute blast, it does run out of steam in places, making its 121-minute runtime feel particularly grueling in places. Likewise, the imagery and storytelling style will likely be too off-putting, abstract, and discomfiting for many mainstream audiences (i.e. those straight-up doofuses who walked out of last night’s screening). However, as a midnight movie, Mandy is sublime. It is a potent blend of bad vibes, psychedelia, and Aleister Crowley-esque occultism that will thrill, chill, and delight you if you’re willing to take the journey. Mandy is destined to become one of the quintessential cult movies, and a sort of arcane codeword amongst devotees of weird and wild films. It’s not a film I would, in good conscience, recommend to everyone, but it’s one that I cannot wait for others to see so we can gleefully and fiendishly dissect as we delight in its myriad cinematic pleasures.

Rating: 4 out of 5 bloody burritos

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Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about  Star Wars and  the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter ( @DanCasey).

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