The unhinged face of Nicolas Cage is as much part of American film as the swoopy John Williams overture. Like Jack Nicholson and Willem Dafoe, his ability to inhabit the extremities of male emotion is a key element of his oeuvre. It’s strange: In real life, men don’t actually snort cocaine and then bare their teeth, roll their eyes, and project wild laughter all that often. But Cage does it—sometimes even without the drugs—in an unbelievable number of his films. His laugh is so distinct that there is a super-cut of every one of his on-screen guffaws. Many are sweet and humble: “heh heh,” accompanied by a toothy grin. But most are hysterical screeches.
In a review of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) in The Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips wrote that Cage is “a performer whose truth lies deep in the artifice of performance.” That quality is in full force in all of Cage’s best work, from his early roles as H. I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona (1987) and Ronny Cammareri in Moonstruck (1987), to his later turns as Charlie/Donald Kaufman in Adaptation (2002) and Terence McDonagh in Bad Lieutenant. In each of these roles, Cage settles into the heart of a character that, in another actor’s hands, could have come off as silly or ironic. From that position of emotional commitment, he heats up like a wire coil on a stovetop. He generates a light and heat that scorches.
These indelible performances, however, are sprinkled between forgettable roles in blockbuster action fare, which has especially been the case since he became the star of the National Treasure quest series in the mid-2000s. (Cage reportedly has been dealing with money problems since squandering his fortune on castles and yachts.) If he reshaped the idea of a leading man in 1990s action movies like Con Air and Face/Off and The Rock, introducing a chaotic kind of menace, he was uncharacteristically boring in the aughts. The exceptions are Adaptation and Bad Lieutenant; in the latter he swept up all that he had done before into a single, insane performance as a cop who hallucinates iguanas and steals drugs from the evidence room, but does the right thing in the end.
Cage makes an incredible movie around every ten years, and it is now 2018: He’s due for another vintage role. Mandy, in cinemas now, features Cage at his frenzied best. Directed by Panos Cosmatos, the film is a dreamlike grindhouse thriller, with Cage as the bereaved Red Miller, who is seeking to avenge the death of his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). The movie’s aesthetic is deeply indebted to rock n’ roll: It opens to the noodling of King Crimson’s “Starless,” and is flooded with scarlet light and dry ice.
It begins with Red and Mandy living in remote woods. They are attacked one night by a cult of hippies led by an insane Brian Eno lookalike, and Mandy is killed. Red pursues their henchmen, who are bikers turned demonic by bad LSD. Staggering back into his house after the attack, he chugs vodka and screams his head off in the bathroom. Then he forges a weapon in shining metal. Against the Black Sabbath-meets-Tim Hecker soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannson, he bludgeons a small army of demon-bikers. “You’re a vicious snowflake,” he bellows at one of them, before cackling through a mouth filled with his enemy’s blood. He snorts a huge pile of coke from a shard of broken glass. Finally he reaches the cult’s hideout, where he lights a cigarette from the flames of a burning man’s head.
The classic Cage maniac face, the one where he lifts his eyelids up real high and grins, happens twice. First, after snorting the coke pile. The second, after he has completed his brutal vengeance, and sees an apparition of his dead girlfriend beside him in the car. Into that smile, Cage pours all his grief. He doesn’t get to talk much in the film. He staggers, instead, like a man in thick mud, like Wilfred Owen’s soldiers cursing through sludge: “Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots / Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”
Nic Cage’s body is different now. Instead of the manic lankiness that danced him through Con Air, he is now a lumbering and more masculine presence. But that wolfish intensity of old is still there. (In Moonstruck, Ronny is repeatedly described as a wolf.) Perhaps it’s the whites of his eyes; perhaps it’s the sound of his scream. But it’s also that fire that courses through his whole being, regardless of what he’s actually saying or doing. As his many bad movies attest, he needs a good director to kindle him into genius. Mandy is one of those movies, and it marks the return of a great, strange actor to home ground. It’s bloody, it’s nasty, and it burns.