Starring Nicholas Cage, Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roach
Written by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Directed by Panos Cosmatos
When going to a film in Park City at midnight, one should expect to see something out of the ordinary. The art of bizarre late-night films always seems to be jeopardized, as their audience is notably limited, yet the Sundance Film Festival consistently provides a home for these entries from hell. At 11:59 pm this past Friday, the audience loading into the Library Theatre expected weird – but could they have known they would witness Nicholas Cage at his most insane? This is the gift that came to us in the form of Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, a distillation of what makes midnight movies great.
Nic Cage plays opposite Andrea Riseborough as a loving rural couple whose lives are torn apart by a gang of acid-guzzling Jesus freaks. After this devastating incident, Cage must avenge his celestial lover through a series of increasingly crazy scenarios – demonic Cenobite bikers, a chainsaw duel, and a tiger named Lizzie being amongst the highlights. It might sound familiar, because it is – Costamos’s narrative is indebted to Mad Max, Hellraiser, and any number of exploitation revenge films. But, the audience at the premiere seemed perfectly content with these similarities; and the film’s vision does remain its own.
Costamos has built a small but loyal fanbase with his 2010 psychedelic trip Beyond the Black Rainbow, an achievement in style and tone that left viewers hungry for his next creation. For those who didn’t appreciate his debut, this sophomore effort won’t change minds; but the fans will find an even stranger creation here, with more satisfying set pieces, emotional depth, and a semi-coherent story. Rather than keep the mood solely dark, Costamos and co-writer Andrew Stewart-Ahn pack the film’s latter half with crowd-pleasing one-liners, which Cage delivers with gusto; even if its story feels patched together from other sources.
The film is an undeniable technical achievement. Its world is inescapable, gripping, and maintains attention as the story builds through the slower first half. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s vividly colorful, rich imagery goes from pretty to confounding, but it always captures the imagination. Johann Johannsson gives the film a deeply-layered, evocative score, blending synths and metal-inspired guitar riffs to further immerse the audience. As mentioned above, Cage commits to his character with amazing wildness, delivering some of his craziest expressions while remaining grounded in emotion. Riseborough commands the film when she’s on screen, a tragically eerie presence that arguably dominates Cage; while Bill Duke shines in an unfortunately short cameo as an ominous weapons supplier.
Amongst this festival’s bold and timely films, Mandy‘s story does feel a little stale. Do we really need to see another white guy avenge his brutally-murdered lover, when groundbreaking debuts like Revenge or Sorry to Bother You are playing next door? Maybe not; but regardless, Costamos remains a fiercely vivid filmmaker, and this new entry reminds us that the medium can be artistically striking while maintaining a sense of humor. It’s a fun movie, no doubt, and we can use some of those right now.
With endless style and a defining performance from Cage, Mandy is a disturbingly satisfying experience. Its willingness to inject humor into its bleak world, its infinite visual inventiveness, and its surprising amount of heart elevate it from one’s standard exploitation film. It isn’t often that this level of talent – behind and in front of the blood-spattered lens – gives itself so wholly to surreal madness. If Costamos continues to expand upon his visions, we’re in for something special down the road; for now, he has delivered a saving grace to audiences who long for a weird kick to their entertainment.
Mandy is a batshit sensory feast, anchored by a familiar but genuine story, Cage’s fierce performance, and a definitive sense of midnight madness.