The Nicolas Cage Renaissance Began With a Horror Movie That Understood His Wild Energy
Irony is dead. Sincerity is in.
From the meme-spawning Wicker Man remake, to the bizarre religious epic Left Behind, to all the direct-to-video slop in between, Nicolas Cage had one of the most bizarre career paths of any Oscar-winning actor. From the late 2000s to the mid-2010s, it was clear Cage wasn’t getting the meaty and dynamic roles he’d become known for embodying.
He did enjoy some successes. David Gordon Green’s pre-Blumhouse drama Joe and Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog earned positive reviews, with critics signaling Cage’s signature go-for-broke sensibilities as highlights. But it was Panos Cosmatos’ second feature, Mandy, that led to a wider cultural reappraisal, despite no one being able to predict that such a strange little movie would have so much influence on the actor’s career.
Co-written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, Mandy tells the twisted love story of logger Red (Cage) and his artist girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). After crossing paths with a religious cult called the Children of the New Dawn led by Jeremiah (Linus Roache), Mandy is brutally murdered. What follows is a strange game of cat-and-mouse as Red tries to avenge Mandy, although that’s a straightforward explanation for an unpredictable and uncanny film.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Cage playing Red. In the world that Cosmatos constructed, the eccentricity that’s defined the actor both professionally and personally is as natural as life itself. Everything about Mandy, from its aesthetics to its storytelling, is akin to a modern fairytale. In this heightened reality, Cage can indulge in his most manic acting traits. It helps that every other actor, including Riseborough in her own career-turning performance, is on the same wavelength. From cultists to cannibalistic biker gangs, Cage is somehow the most normal element of Mandy. In other productions, he can be a bizarre anomaly, but here he seamlessly blends into the film.
Why did it take this long for a creative team to figure out how to best use Cage’s unique talents? Maybe his eccentric persona and previous slumps made him too risky. His short marriages, bizarre public outings, and off-kilter acting sensibilities were incongruous with the direction that Hollywood wanted to take its leading actors, leading him to be considered a loose cannon at best and box office poison at worst.
This stretch of Cage’s career also coincided with a new acting landscape where actors like him were dying out. Hollywood was experiencing the rise of the charming and stoic mystery man — Henry Cavill, Adam Driver, Benedict Cumberbatch. Method acting was still encouraged, but only in press-worthy extremes that prioritized torment over immersion. The adventurous actor whose public persona blurred the lines between acting and reality was becoming obsolete. Cage, who’d become shorthand for a has-been joke, was likely part of this shift.
Then Mandy came around. The film premiered at the right moment in the horror genre’s development, appearing alongside Ari Aster’s seminal Hereditary at Sundance 2018. Its psychedelic, skin-crawling imagery and lack of clear answers make it a staggering achievement. Combining the gory absurdity of traditional slasher flicks with the slow-burning psychological torment of the burgeoning elevated horror movement, it proved that horror doesn’t have to sway between genre extremes.
Cage was instrumental in achieving this precarious balance. Cosmatos’ direction and Stewart-Ahn’s characterization helped critics realize what was missing from the actor’s filmography over the past decade: a sense of grounding. Red is what makes Mandy work as well as it does, as its heightened reality and surreal nature authentically embrace Cage rather than employ him ironically. This is why many films Cage has starred in since haven’t had the same impact — The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and Renfield tried to parody him rather than get on his level. But while movies with this pseudo-mocking aura will likely be forgotten, the unabashed authenticity of Mandy will always remain a highlight of Cage’s career.