Nicolas Cage Is Embracing Strange Corners of His Career With 'Mandy'

There are few myths bigger in the movie blogosphere and film-centric channels of social media than the one that claims Nicolas Cage is a bad actor. Sure, he’s made his share of questionable movies, maybe a few more in the age of VOD and direct-to-video, but even as an actor who seems to rarely turn down a job, Cage’s filmography is one studded with greatness. And perhaps more important, it’s a filmography that’s largely filled with memorable performances. Even when we don’t remember the title, or the plot points, or who else was in the movie, we remember that Nic Cage was there and if only just for a moment, or two, we fully submitted to his screen presence.  

Last week’s release of the trailer for Mandy, the much talked-about festival favorite and genre-smorgasbord from director Panos Cosmatos, has given credence to the notion that Cage is back, with some calling his role as Red his best performance in years. The enthusiasm over Cage’s alleged return to form that highlights why the actor has held such a cult-like grip on audiences over the years, particularly for those looking to see him step back into the role of the Coppola-raised indie-darling who cut his teeth on films from the Coen brothers and David Lynch. There’s a frequently expressed sentiment that Cage will be great again, after all, he’s done it before.

The thing is, Nicolas Cage has always been great, consistently so. Perhaps Mandy isn’t a comeback, at least not in the same way that internet culture has loved to brand the renaissance years of middle-aged actors, a la Matthew McConaughey’s McConaissance. In watching the trailer for Mandy, one doesn’t get the sense of Cage returning to his roots, but rather that he is embracing all the strange corners his career has taken him into and accepting the fact that he doesn’t need to perform within our limited boundaries of acting superlatives.

A quick search for Nicolas Cage on Netflix will bring up a lot of what the actor has been up to over the past few years. Films like Inconceivable (2017), Dog Eat Dog (2016), USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016) and Pay the Ghost (2015) promise thrills born of the same impulse that made Liam Neeson an action hero with Taken (2008). But these films, many of which received a limited theatrical release, if at all, barely made a blip on the radar, and their critic and audience scores would be damning if anyone cared enough to parse through them. Though he received praise for his role in David Gordon Green’s crime drama Joe (2013) and found box office success in animation with The Croods that same year, Cage’s last live-action hit was 2010’s Kick-Ass. What has Nic Cage been doing for a decade? It’s a fair question concerning an actor who reached superstardom in the '90s and enjoyed steady, measurable success through the 2000s. But the second decade of the 21st century has found Nic Cage’s energy bottled in roles that have largely required him to play a straight man, or a conventional action hero whose impacts may be deadened by the perpetuating narrative that Cage lacks craft.

Cage, who won a best actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and was nominated again for Adaptation (2002), doesn’t seem to be chasing golden statues like so many of his peers. This largely seems to stem from the fact that he has so easily been able to transition from genre to genre. There’s a free-spirited quality to Cage, even in his most intense roles, that suggest an actor who has marked his career by falling into the right place at the right time. From offbeat comedies of the '80s like Raising Arizona (1987) and Moonstruck (1987), Jerry Bruckheimer-fueled action movies of the '90s like The Rock (1996) and Con Air (1997), and high-concept blockbusters like National Treasure (2004) and Knowing (2009), Nic Cage has displayed an uncanny ability to be the missing ingredient in films we wouldn’t necessarily peg him for. Cage defies the constraints filmgoers and critics place lead actors under, refusing to be cornered as any one kind of actor and instead opting for the most unique thing he can be: Nicolas Cage. And this brings us to the Mandy of the situation.

Mandy looks to play upon our expectations of Cage — the screaming, the erraticism, the palpable confusion and ensuing rage that is all somehow peppered with humor. Mandy, like Cage’s earlier release this year, Mom and Dad, seems to embrace the crazy Cage persona popularized in the widely circulated YouTube video, “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit,” which features some of the most absurd moments of Cage’s career.

Mom and Dad, which saw Cage re-team with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance co-director Brian Taylor, showcases the actor demolishing a pool table with his bare hands, while chasing his kids around a suburban home in a vein-popping rage. There’s a self-awareness through which Cage tackles the role — a performance that is calculated in his ability to go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds, all for the cheers of midnight movie crowds. This isn’t to suggest that he’s become a clown, a parody for our amusement, but rather that his experience as indie oddball, glistening action hero, and king of VOD movies for dads who just got a Netflix subscription, have allowed him to play with audience expectations in a way that feels like a meta-commentary on his acting abilities. His recent performances beg the question — If he’s a so-called bad actor, but we’re eating his performances up, celebrating how out there they can be or how restrained to the point of our frustration, then is he really a bad actor?

Mandy, in which Cage plays a lumberjack who hunts down a religious cult that killed his wife, features the actor covered from head to toe in blood and pursuing extreme levels of ultraviolence that include a chainsaw duel. The film’s director, Panos Cosmatos, who wowed and puzzled audiences with his debut film Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), has shown a visionary ability to bridge tones and genres through his phantasmagoric scenarios. It seems fitting then that the man to lead us through Cosmatos' red-hued hellscape should be one whose unique acting abilities have also bridged tones and genres.

Mandy seems like the perfect vehicle for an actor who refuses to simply be one thing, whose choices both impress and baffle, and who has worn more hats across his career than many actors would even know what to do with. Mom and Dad and Mandy seem to promise the era of self-aware Cage, in roles that make use of all of the personas he’s taken hold of over the years. The characters of these films, in simple terms, are aging men pushed out of romantic relationships and away from the macho heroism of youth who try to make sense of a world that simultaneously craves order while refuting logic. These characters seem like a testament to Cage’s career, and perhaps even mark a new phase for the actor. Perhaps. Because the moment we think we have Cage figured out, he surprises us again, so maybe it’s better to just set him loose and wait to see how he further disrupts our mundane, binary concept of a good or bad leading man.

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