If you’re going to cast someone to play a regular man driven into fury and ultraviolence by a combination of grief, rage, and powerful hallucinogenic drugs that are possibly from hell, you could do much worse than picking Nicolas Cage. This is the very correct choice that director Panos Cosmatos made, casting Cage as protagonist Red Miller in Mandy, the blood-soaked psychedelic revenge story that serves as his follow-up to 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow.
In the film, Miller’s idyllic life in a 1983 American backwoods is shattered by the arrival of sinister acid cultists, leading him to forge a giant terrifying fantasy axe and embark on a quest of bloody vengeance. In my humble opinion, it fucking rules.
Cosmatos originally envisioned Cage in the role of the antagonist Jeremiah but connected more with the character of Red. “I just felt that I had the emotional wherewithal and the life experience. Not like I’d done anything like Red does in the movie, but metaphorically speaking I could understand his rage and I could understand his loss,” Cage told P.TV. “My father’s passing on I was still not completely over, and it’s been years. Then little things had happened after I’d read the script — my marriage didn’t really work out and there was a feeling of loss there and I was just able to put all that into that vessel that was Red. I didn’t have any experience or — it’s not that I couldn’t have [played Jeremiah], but I didn’t feel called to, whereas with Red I did.
“I thought I could portray the character authentically and not through any kind of stylisation or western Kabuki, more towards the nouveau shamanic that I often talk about, where I was going to go within and try and come up with some sort of answer to the character and plunge the cauldron of my own emotional well and bring something back. Then when Panos said ‘action’ I would be prepared and be ready to go and let him out of the gate, but that came more out of those bits of grief. Jeremiah was not a character that I had a reference point for.”
(If you want a good explanation of what he means by western Kabuki and nouveau shamanism, there’s a great interview right here.)
Red Miller is presented as something of a blank canvas, largely defined by the fact that he loves the titular Mandy and is a somewhat taciturn lumberjack, but Cage says there was originally a bit more about his past in the film: “There was a scene in the script originally that spoke to that. Red and Mandy are confronted by a sheriff at a gas station and you get the sense that Red was a hard-drinking, violent criminal at one point but it didn’t make the cut. I think that after what happens, he succumbs to the bottle again and awakens the demon.”
One of the things that Cage likes about the role is that Red could be anyone. “One of the things I like about Red is that he looks like you or I or… the everyman. He does not look like a Marvel superhero, he does not look like Thor, he does not look like Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. Or… as much as I like Dwayne Johnson as a charismatic performer, [Red] doesn’t have that physique, he’s an everyman,” Cage says. “But if you scratch the surface of any man long enough you’re going to reach that inner caveman, and I think that is more compelling in some ways because you get to go on a ride with someone who’s not so different to the rest of us. It’s about heart and it’s about willpower and it’s about mind over matter, and I like that about Red.”
While revenge plays a big, big part in the film, Cage says that the movie is ultimately bigger than its storyline: “It has this extraordinary palette that comes from the imagination of Panos Cosmatos. I think this is a different world that he has created, this isn’t a version of 1983 that we know, this is his version of a fantastical 1983. I think more than the story itself there’s the execution and the style and the presentation and the expression, I think all of that is what makes this movie special, rather than just being a revenge picture. It has a canvas that is just entirely unique.”
He’s not wrong. If you’re keen to watch the movie, Monster Fest and Madman are putting on screenings around Australia on Friday, September 21 at a bunch of different cinemas, you can see the full list here.