Before all the blood starts spurting and gurgling, Mandy offers an epigraph, its letters bloody red:
When I die
Bury me deep
Lay two speakers at my feet
Wrap some headphones
Around my head
And rock and roll me
When I’m dead.
The words go uncredited (they are, turns out, the last words of murderer and kidnapper Douglas Roberts, who was executed in 2005), but as they appear, over fiddly electric guitar and fuzzy synth, they set Mandy’s tone. This is a movie that’s kind of sad, kind of lyrical, and kind of rock ’n’ roll; its first half is an earnest, artsy character study, and its second is a greasy, sordid revenge flick. It also features one of Nicolas Cage’s most bugfuck crazy performances, so: Mandy isn’t for everyone. But for those it is for? It’s a hell of a thing.
Viewers eager for the rock, though, will have to wait: The first half of Panos Cosmatos’ surreal saga is more self-indulgent prog-rock than blistering metal. A glittery title card—“The Shadow Mountains, 1983 A.D.”—and a spacey, slow hour scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson and King Crimson introduce us to logger Red (Cage) and his artist wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), who live deep in the woods, eat in front of the TV, make dumb jokes, and talk in bed. Red wears a beard and Mandy wears Sabbath and Crüe T-shirts. Every shot looks like a black-light poster, and it’s only a matter of time until something terrible happens.
One scene, in which our hero lurches and grunts in a bathroom as he chugs vodka in tighty-whities and tube socks, is pure... Nicolas-Caginess in the best possible way.
Because this is a revenge movie, that terrible thing happens to Mandy: Abducted by a drugged-out, “crazy evil” cult of Jesus freaks, Mandy spurns the advances of their preening leader, Jeremiah (Linus Roache), and is brutally slaughtered before Red’s eyes. Of course she is: While Mandy is mostly unpredictable, it still dumbly clings to the misogynistic tropes of the revenge genre.
At which point Mandy pivots: Cage’s eyes widen, his voice rises, and, after sliding on some aviators and forging a gleaming battle axe, he grabs a crossbow named “the Reaper” and starts hacking his way through Jesus freaks. The results are gruesome, silly, and satisfying: blood spurts and gurgles, there’s a tiger named Lizzie, and a sword fight in which the swords are chainsaws.
Cage’s craziest and best performances are in movies that—like him—just fucking commit: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona. (And... Face/Off? Sure! Face/Off.) Add Mandy to the list, and relish the sight of Cage, face slathered in blood and cocaine, channeling rage, glee, and bone-deep mourning. One scene, in which our hero lurches and grunts in a bathroom as he chugs vodka in tighty-whities and tube socks, is pure... Nicolas-Caginess in the best possible way.
True, Mandy never quite gels; it’s smeared somewhere between super-specialized art house and broad VHS schlock. It’s alternately creepy, sordid, and goofy; even within scenes, it changes its tempo and switches the chorus. But at its best, Mandy has a rock ’n’ roll magnetism that’s hard to shake—a whisper of wit behind its thudding solos. “You should go in knowing that your odds ain’t that good and you will probably die,” a friend warns Red as he sets out for revenge. Cage doesn’t miss a beat: “Don’t be negative.”