No actor has benefited from – or been disadvantaged by – digital culture quite like Nicolas Cage, whose most flamboyant moments have been collated and shared so many times that it’s become almost impossible for him to escape his own camp effect. Virtually every film that he has made in the last decade has felt aimed at this inevitable digital dissection and recomposition, resulting in a body of work whose very hyperbole has often played defensively, as a way of ensuring that he doesn’t give away anything too authentic for fear of it being reappropriated against him. There’s a considerable formal challenge, then, to framing Cage in a way that takes advantage of his trademark intensity, and the intensity he has accrued over the last decade in particular, while leaving space for him to be received as something other than a parody of himself, or a sly wink in the direction of a knowing fanbase. While it may be impossible to fully achieve that ever again, Panos Cosmatos comes closer than anyone else with Mandy, a rape-and-revenge film set in the Pacific Northwest in which Cage plays Red Miller, a logger, and Andrea Riseborough plays Mandy Bloom, his lover and partner. Interestingly, there are traces of many other similar efforts to rehabilitate Cage here – most notably David Gordon Green’s Joe, where he also plays a logger – but they’re quickly outshadowed by Cosmatos’ tone and visual style, which represents an enormous step forward from the eerie horror he showcased in Beyond the Black Rainbow.
The first act of Mandy more or less plays as an exercise in elaborating this atmosphere, which takes place against a landscape described as “Pacific Northwest, 1983 AD,” and is suffused with a galactic taste for the eldritch, the wyrd and the mysterious that ensures every vista and expanse is a source of cosmic wonder, and every moment is suffused with a cosmic earnestness that exceeds even the most knowing and ironic of audiences. From the opening scenes, the Pacific Northwest feels newly emerged from the flux of the universe, as Red and Mandy discuss their favourite planet while gazing up through their glass ceiling at the night sky, swathed in a gorgeous crepuscularity in which every act is a rite, every exchange is ritualistic, and every experience has a planetary dimension. For the most part, there’s no real dialogue, with Cosmatos instead alternating between monologues and silence, both of which emphasise the musicality of language rather than the actual content of words, as Johan Johansson’s ethereal score percolates and works its way into every crevice of the film, suffusing every shot with a trembling prescience of imminent revelation.
While that atmosphere may be anchored in the paperbacks, albums and other cultural references strewn across Cosmatos’ mise-en-scenes, it ultimately exceeds all of them, since the film doesn’t harken back to any one source or style, but to a moment in the late 70s and early 80s when the materiality of pop culture, and the material proliferation of pop culture, was starting to arrive at its zenith. Faced with an unprecedented smorgasbord of pop objects that could be bought, sold, exchanged and collected, a sprawling fantasy lexicon emerged that was not only elaborated through objects, but played out amongst objects, from graphic novels, to Choose Your Own Adventures, to cult pamphlets, to high concept toys, to fantasy paperbacks. It’s that intermedial fantasy lexicon – or intermaterial fantasy lexicon – that fascinates Mandy, with Cosmatos reserving a particular affection for and attachment to covers – VHS covers, paperback covers, prog and metal album covers – and the way in which they gestured towards a flamboyant fantasy universe that could never be entirely exhausted by the texts they introduced, or articulated by the media they bounded.
Accordingly, Cosmatos continually emphasises the materiality of his own film, crafting compositions and tableaux that are always just a little too stylised to allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the narrative and characters. Instead, this is film qua film, suffused with an anlog granularity and textural murk that foregrounds it as a material object, even or especially as the narrative proper starts to kick into gear. In essence, this is a rape-and-revenge arc, as the abduction and sacrifice of Mandy by a travelling cult prompts Red into a retaliation trajectory that sees him taking out each member of the cult one by one, along with a gang of roving, cyborg bikies that have been working in tandem with them. Yet for all the ultra-violence that ensues, the material presence of the film is the most visceral thing about Mandy, with even the most violent moments tending to be submerged and absorbed into long, luxurious segments of abstracted sound and image, in which images slow down and literally stain the screen, or else persist for so long that they seem to imprint themselves upon your retina, remaining to haunt and surprise you long after the film ends.
Even when Johansson’s score isn’t front and centre, there’s nearly always a low humming noise somewhere in the background, as if to vocalise the fact of the film being projected, and the material presence of the film, above and beyond whatever is happening within it. The further Red goes into his revenge trajectory, the more this sonic murk thickens around him, as one mise-en-scene after another is dissolved in swathes of lurid light and dense smoke that gradually seep into and become continuous with the granularity of the film itself. As the Pacific Northwest is abstracted into a moody occult texture, shot through with one gorgeous fluorescent palette after another, the interminable monologues and extended periods of silence come to mean much the same thing, converging on a world in which words have been dissociated from actions, but in which words are also actions in themselves, part and parcel with the talismanic objects that circulate throughout the story.
Within that environment, many of the scariest moments involve shapes and figures emerging from the remote background, but never quite arriving at the foreground – too filtered through mist, darkness and strobe lights to ever quite congeal into a recognisable object, or to be totally discernible or comprehensible when they do, instead remaining poised in a lumpen materiality that eventually extends to Cage and Riseborough’s bodies as well. It’s most visceral in the case of Riseborough, since the centerpiece of the film revolves around Mandy’s body burning above a sacrificial fire as Red is gagged and forced to watch. But Cage’s body is also invested with a burdensome materiality here as well, since at no point do we see his full figure, while he barely speaks in the entire film, and is almost unrecognizable for long stretches of it, with the occasional comic touches just serving to emphasise how far we have come from Cage as camp effect, or parody of himself. No doubt, his intensity of the last decade persists, but it’s now turned into something he has to traverse, rather than an easy way to get screen cache, with the result that Mandy often seems to be following Cage himself as he struggles to recover the possibility of pathos, just as Red’s process of revenge involves taking a hit after each fresh kill – a swig of liquor, a line of cocaine, a cigarette lit on the face of a dead man – to reinforce and accentuate his voice.
That fixation on Cage in the here and now is part of what prevents Mandy from ever feeling like a slavish period piece, as much as it might be grounded in a particularly periodised materiality and taste for the tactility of the artistic object as object. Similarly, this intermaterial fantasy world also allows Cosmatos to build a genuinely metaphysical sense of evil that quickly attaches itself to Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the leader of the cult, who gradually converges a whole variety of occult practices on what turns out to be a surprisingly orthodox Christian mission. With evil defined as white, male and Christian, Red’s own subject position is momentarily overwhelmed and absorbed – he is forced to get his initial weapons from the first and last black character we see – as he realises that the wood that he is logging is actually being used to construct the church where the final showdown occurs. In an era driven by Republican Christianity, there’s something quite powerful about seeing the language of Christian metaphysics used against itself, as the metal and prog rock universe of Mandy and Red is also gradually equated with a utopian and pastoral impulse – a cosmic environmentalism – that couldn’t be further from Jeremiah’s Christian terrorism.
That all culminates with the final standoff in Jeremiah’s church, which ends – as it must – with Red winning. Yet given the enormous visceral buildup, no single act of revenge could satiate the doom and apprehension of the first part of the film, just as no single act of pathos or gravity could quite undo the campier possibilities of Cage’s performance that have been hanging around the film, despite Cosmatos’ best efforts. In a remarkable final gesture, then, Cosmatos ends by cutting between a desperate reaction shot from Red and a comic reaction shot from Red, leaving the audience stranded between these two different versions of Cage before he drives off into a cosmic sunrise, suffused with planets and stars unknown to our universe. In the theatre where I saw Mandy, these two reaction shots, and the subsequent sunrise, corresponded with the lights coming up, leaving the audience to regard themselves as an audience, and the film as a material entity, during this final shift in tone. Whether this was a conscious instruction on the part of Cosmatos, or a lucky accident, it worked perfectly to accentuate the atonality and incommensurability of these last moments of Mandy, which refuse to choose between Cage as camp actor and Cage as serious actor, or between the film as immersive experience and the film as material object, but instead straddle us on the border between each option, making each option, in turn, more visceral than it could have been if it didn’t have to contend with its opposite in such a volatile way.