More Cage than Cage: Mandy as the fatality of a gesture
There is a delicious paradox embedded in the finale of Panos Cosmatos' 2018 Mandy. As Red Miller (Nicholas Cage) turns to camera and gives an ultra maniacal grin, the viewer can assume that Red's joy is drawn from exacting bloody revenge. Typical of the revenge genre, the film has tracked his dispatching of the plethora of evil Goons responsible for the violent death of his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). The fidelity to this genre is replete with expected tropes (chainsaw fights, an occult religious messiah, medieval-themed weapons) and the brutal denouement is always known. Cosmatos has crafted a heavy-metal, sensually surcharged revenge-fest, but it is the insertion of Cage and the meticulous attention to affect that takes the film to an excessive limit. Everything about the film carries an almost Lynchian excess. Dominant senses are in overload and the viewing experience I encountered upon seeing the film ended with a mass exhalation from the audience; a form of communal emotional connectivity. Cage demands attention and his acolytes have come to expect the sort of performance he gives in Mandy, exemplified by this final shot.
The visceral experience of Red's journey comes to an end when he stares at the camera and acknowledges that it is over. But this subversive visage and Cosmatos' psychedelic diegetic space encourages an even more interesting experience. Here, as the past and the present bleed into each other, Cage has been staring at or hallucinating his wife sitting next to him. He has slaughtered the last of her killers. He is delirious and battle weary, but we can hazard a theory here of the multiple possibilities of the genealogy of this look. If it is at the behest of Cosmatos, it is perhaps saying, "It's time to exhale, Red Miller has overcome some insurmountable odds." But, if we see it as Cage rather than Red Miller, then it is a look square at the Cage-struck audience, a nod to the fandom, of Nicholas Cage being more Cage than Cage. If such a thesis is viable, where more Cage than Cage is literal, this moment allows us to trace a line from a Cage-ean hallucinatory aleatoric margin back to a more Cage-less banal centre. In other words, the gravity of this film is because of the distance it creates away from the typical revenge fantasy genre. Cage could be asserting that Mandy is hyperreality incarnate and that all other revenge fiction, by comparison, is fatally unsatisfying because of his unique delirious actions. Mandy's excess, therefore, allows us to theorise the vapid central banality of other revenge films of this type. What this moment also crystallises, for me, is that Cage/Miller affirms that the typical revenge horror/drama has lost its seductive energy. Akin to Baudrillard's third level of simulation,1 these films mask the absence of a basic reality. I see the banal horror film, with its clichéd and predictable tropes, as a genre that never reflects what the actual world is like. For me, this genre merely simulates the production of something yearned for or desired. Here, for me, emerges the most powerful reading of Cage's maniacal grin. This moment asks us to look both inwards and outwards at the same time. It is an ambivalent stare at the diegetic space and the fury it has protected. More importantly, it seems to suggest that we have to look outward to see that no amount of bloody violent revenge can save the actual world from itself.
I understand the revenge drama as a barometer for the zeitgeist. We live in a world of increasing cruelty, injustice and inequality and the desire to redress this imbalance is often left to the imagination and therefore played out in the cinema. Cage's grin here tells us the cinema only offers temporary succour. The growing gap between rich and poor has increased social anxieties but the root cause of this is perhaps the dizzying march of free market neoliberal capital. However, this relationship between anxiety and capital is under-explored. The point is that if this film, as exemplified by Cage's strange and uncanny grin, satiates our desires for a broad notion of justice, it can only be a temporary poultice for our socio-political anxieties. We cannot let cinema be the only palace of justice.
With this in mind, we could read Red Miller cutting a (literal) swathe through religious fundamentalism and psychotic bikies, answering violence with its hyperbolic form and grinning to (mistakenly) inform us that the job is done. But the situation is only ever accomplished on the screen and issues such as religious fundamentalism and economic inequality continue to fuel social anxieties outside the comfort of the diegetic space. Cage's look to camera can then signify a multiple and heterogeneous set of meanings that work to give the scene a sense of aesthetic overload. The entire film has built towards this crescendo. This overload is then reflected through a variety of trajectories. We may not want to talk about "peak Cage" here but look at how the palette, music and zeitgeist points towards its other; the banal humdrum revenge fantasy offered in the multiplex is only a soporific.
Cosmatos colours the scene with pure excess so that the spectacle ignites a plethora of interpretive responses. My theory is that this excess creates an affect that both invites a critical interpretive response and withdraws from it at the same time; in short, the entire film as symbolised by this end frame casts a seductive energy that is deliberately elusive. The dynamic shift in the film from love story to revenge story reflects the allegorical metaphor of our time; in one moment we can be plunged from serenity to sheer hallucinatory madness. Red Miller's life changes with the un-fortuitous chance meeting on the road with Mandy and deranged psychopath, the appropriately named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). What this excess does is invite the viewer to refract from these margins back to a more blank centre. This cognitive shift, for me, is the point of the film. Cosmatos' excess is a line of flight from banality arriving at an overblown hyperbolic Cage. If we see the genealogy of Cage's performance and Cosmatos' inspiration for directing it, we can stand back and see a pure adrenaline-inspired metaphor of the film: the madness of civilisation is not located at the hysterical fringes, but in the centre with the scripted machinations of religion, mass media and mindless conformity.