Some movies just make sense. Mandy, starring a near-feral Nicolas Cage, is not one of them. It begins as a glacially-paced exercise in psych-horror scene-setting before abruptly transforming into a drugged-out, neon-drenched revenge flick. Gita Jackson and I sat down to try to make sense of it all.
Nathan Grayson: Hey, Gita! So, we have now both seen Mandy, an unevenly-paced prog rock album of a film. Also, Nic Cage gets into a chainsaw duel with a cult member. It shouldn’t work, but I legit think I’d recommend it to just about anyone at this point. Well, anyone with the stomach for its ridiculous grindhouse violence.
Gita Jackson: I am a born and bred Nicolas Cage apologist. To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, he’s a fine actor in a good movie and an indispensable actor in a bad one. Mandy hovers between good and bad for me. A friend described it as not a good movie, but a cool movie. It’s certainly beautiful to look at—and sometimes thrilling and horrifying. But Nicolas Cage is just delivering an out of control performance that I adore.
Nathan: Yeah, I’m not sure I’d call it “good,” either, but it’s obscenely captivating. Nic Cage does a lot of the heavy lifting in that respect, but he doesn’t really amp things up until about an hour into the movie. For the first half, he’s practically a supporting character, playing a hapless forester while a cult conjures up maniacal plans and maybe also dark magic to abduct his wife. What did you think of the pacing of that first half? Did the slow-moving fog of pink, smoky visuals and doom-y sound effects work for you?
Gita: This movie operates more like an album than a movie, and in that regard I think it kind of works. I was fond of the titular character of Mandy. Andrea Riseborough imparts a lot of unspoken trauma in her performance. You get the sense that a movie’s worth of shit has already happened to her by the time we meet her, so spending time with her in a dreamy haze felt good to me. It was like settling in for the first track on a drone metal album, where they just let one chord play on and on before breaking your brain with pure noise. Given that it’s separated into three parts, it sometimes felt like, I don’t know, a three song metal EP where each track is like 20 minutes long.
Nathan: It felt like the sort of album that wants you to soak in—or maybe even drown in—the vibe. And oh, more literally, the soundtrack is so goooooooood.
Gita: I loved it.
Nathan: When the movie opened on “Starless” by King Crimson, I just about screamed. That, any famous directors who might be reading, is how you make a movie for me and me alone.
Gita: Mandy is one of the last movies that Icelandic composer with a very long name scored before his death. I know this because my very goth roommate loves him.
Nathan: Jóhann Jóhannsson? Yeah, I believe it was his last. But yeah, those thick, droning guitar chords as Nic Cage’s character walks down that tunnel into the cult compound.
Gita: LOVE IT. The sound editing in general is impeccable.
Nathan: The movie gets away with so much that lesser films couldn’t because of the sound. From the get-go, everything felt foreboding. It was just a couple living in an extremely sweet pad in the woods, but that droning synth and those acid nightmare visuals just refused to let you get comfortable. It was all so hypnotic, too, which worked especially well once the drugged-out cult entered the picture. The cult leader was a rapist fuckhead caricature of ‘80s hyper-individualism, but... if he started an ASMR channel on YouTube, I feel like it’d take off.
Gita: Can we talk about how fucking dope that house was? I want to live in it.
Nathan: I like that Nic Cage kept a giant bottle of booze in a random bathroom drawer.
Gita: There’s a lot of good implicit world building in this. In the helicopter ride in the beginning, Cage turns down a drink. Then when he’s lost everything, the only place he can find booze is hidden in the bathroom. It gives the viewer the pieces and lets them figure it out. Same with Mandy’s scar and the story about her father killing birds in front of her. We know there’s pain in both their pasts. We don’t need to revel in it, but it gives context for the wild ride the movie takes you on.
Nathan: Yeah, the world-building is really sparse, which again fits nicely with the vibe the movie gives off. The little details it lets the viewer pick up build on each other really well, too. The end result is that even though these characters aren’t super fleshed out, you feel the gravity of their situation. When I heard “Nic Cage in a chainsaw duel,” I expected a schlock-fest, and in some ways, this movie is, but there’s very little ironic distance here.
I’ll be honest: I usually hate movies that try to recreate ‘80s pulp but with modern self-awareness. I’m so over the stream of tired references, soundtrack choices, one-liners, and action sequences that come out of movies and games that attempt it—especially when they’re done purely for their own sake. Mandy worked for me because it used some of those aesthetics to create something that didn’t take itself overly seriously, but recognized that characters dealing with situations like these would be left irreparably broken and fucked.
And they were very damaged people before the movie ever began, so when Nic Cage’s character just breaks after seeing Mandy get burned alive, you believe it. And the way the camera just lingered on his face in that moment. Man.
Gita: I almost started crying. It’s horrifying.
It’s amazing that this movie where a man wielding a three foot long chainsaw fights Nicolas Cage got me emotionally invested in its characters.
Nathan: The bit that really drove that home for me was when Nic Cage’s character—who does have a name, Red, but come on: he’s Nic Cage—was fighting one of the acid biker demons, and the biker was like “You have a death wish,” and Nic Cage’s character went from being all tough and cool to crying and being like “I don’t want to talk about it.” And it worked! It was funny, but I also bought it!
Gita: This movie achieves what a lot of those “remember this ‘80s thing” movies want to do, which is building something wholly new out of a bunch of old things. It also does a better job of sparse filmmaking than a lot of other movies that try this. But for everything that is substantive about this movie, it also feels substance-less on the whole. I’m not denying that it’s awesome, but what’s my takeaway? How do I bring this movie forward with me into my life?
Recently I watched the movie Terror Firmer, which is from the production company Troma, which has a reputation for making offensive, shocking movies. To wit, Terror Firmer has a super transphobic joke at the end that takes up almost the entire third act. I’m not going to even try to defend that—honestly, it’s indefensible. But even that movie, that gleefully tries to offend and where a woman fucks herself with a pickle, makes a case for itself and presents an argument in favor of the schlock that Troma produces. At the end of Mandy, I was like “This is awesome, but so what?”
Nathan: After I watched Mandy last night, I fell asleep racking my brain for anything I might have missed that would have better cohered the movie or given it some kind of bigger meaning. But nah, stuff happens and then it ends. And don’t get me wrong: the stuff that happens in the movie’s second half is WILD. Nic Cage boozing himself into oblivion and howling like a dying dog. That DnD-ass axe he forges. The chainsaw duel. The cult leader falling to his knees and begging for his life (“I’ll blow you! Is that what you want?”) while simultaneously trying to buy into his own hype—just before Nic Cage crushes his skull with his bare hands and basically climaxes from vengeance. But then he rides away into the distance, which increasingly comes to resemble a fantasy book cover like the ones Mandy read, and it’s just... cool.
I mean, the lack of overt takeaways kinda works in that the movie’s whole central event is pretty meaningless. A sad sack failed-musician-turned-cult-leader sees a woman on the road and decides he must have her. Red’s entire life gets destroyed because of the whim of some random asshole he’s never met. He gets revenge, but beyond the moment he achieves it, what’s the point? It’s over-complicated masturbation. Afterward, you see him driving away, hallucinating Mandy in the passenger’s seat while he beams like a lunatic through a mask of other people’s blood. I guess, like, what can you take away from a story like that that isn’t super hackneyed or cliched? Crappy, faux-ironic ‘80s pastiche movies might try to add some kind of punctuation mark to all of that, but I think you’re just clutching at straws at that point.
Gita: The best thing I will say about this is that Mandy kind of understands that it’s empty. As you said, the plot revolves around meaninglessness at its core, and it ends on an image bereft of any life at all besides Cage. The most I will give it is that it implies that Cage has lost his humanity—by the end he’s speaking in the same distorted voice as the biker demons, and he’s gained superhuman strength. It wanted to transport you to another world, and for a while, it did that. That’s fine for the most part. But it’s also what’s stopping me from calling this movie Great instead of Good.
Nathan: Absolutely. In conclusion: I give this movie seven Cheddar Goblins out of ten.
Gita: The pure absurdity of the fake in-universe Cheddar Goblin advertisement is beautiful to me. I will never forget the image of a goblin puppet vomiting mac and cheese on the heads of children. If nothing else, Mandy gave me that.