Leaving Las Vegas. Raising Arizona. Con Air. National Treasure. The Wicker Man. The Weather Man. Lord of War. Adaptation. Face/Off. Gone in 60 Seconds (and a cameo in its porn version: Bone in 69 Sexconds). Vampire’s Kiss. The Rock. Next. Knowing. Bangkok Dangerous. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Kick-Ass. Peggy Sue Got Married. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Ghost Rider. Mom and Dad. Looking Glass. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies.
Nicolas Cage has done some stuff. Some of it has been amazing, like Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona. Some of it has been terrible, like USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage and Windtalkers. But a lot of it has just been Nicolas Cage-y, which is to say so insane and entertaining that things like “good” and “bad” seem to be irrelevant. Con Air might make movie critics vomit with rage, but I’ll yell at random strangers to “Put the Bunny Back in the Box.” Vampire’s Kiss is literally an internet meme now, but there’s no one who can tell me that they have watched it and thought that any other actor could do that movie. Cage has been great, he’s been terrible, but mostly he’s just been Cage.
With that in mind, I can say the following: This is the most Cage that he has ever been, but this movie was clearly written to bring out as much Cage as he could bring. AND IT IS AMAZING. This isn’t a “So bad it’s good” movie or a “So insane I can’t look away” movie. This is a great movie that has all the trappings of a bad movie done in such a beautiful and insane way that can only be captured by the crazy talented mind that is Nicolas Cage.
Mini-Summary (for the impatient)
Red Miller’s girlfriend Mandy gets abducted by a cult. He goes on a roaring rampage of revenge with an axe, a crossbow, and a chainsaw.
It’s the 80s, because everything was more fun back then. Red Miller (Cage) lives with his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in the Shadow Mountains in Eastern California. Red works as a logger while Mandy is an artist that does elaborate fantasy pieces (Think stuff that would be awesome airbrushed on a van). While they don’t say anything directly, both of them show signs of having trauma in their pasts that have led them to having a stronger bond to help each other.
Mandy is on her way to her day job at a gas station when she walks past a van carrying cult members of the Children of the New Dawn. The leader of the cult, Jeremiah Sand (Linus “You know who I am, but probably wouldn’t recognize me here” Roache), immediately becomes obsessed with Mandy. He orders his lieutenant, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), to kidnap her. Swan enlists the help of the Black Skulls, a possibly-semi-magical demon-themed biker gang who are also LSD-tripping cannibals. The Skulls require a sacrifice for their help, resulting in Swan giving them one of the low-ranking cult members.
The bikers break into Red and Mandy’s home and capture the two. Two of the cult members, Mother Marlene and Sister Lucy (Olwen Fouéré and Line Pillet), drug Mandy with some liquid LSD and the venom of a specially bred wasp. At this point, the movie becomes significantly trippier, something that, admittedly, is tough to accomplish when you’ve already had demon bikers and a hippie cult.
Sand attempts to seduce Mandy with his music (having been a failed musician), claiming that he has divine providence and right over all things. Mandy responds by laughing at his small penis and generally pathetic nature. This causes Sand to consider for a moment that he is not, in fact, divine or special, so he becomes angry and orders Red to be tied up with barbed wire and stabbed. He then forces Red to watch as he sets Mandy on fire, burning her to ashes before leaving. Red frees himself, then passes out from blood-loss and shock. When he awakens, he drinks an entire bottle of vodka (his character is implied to be recovering alcoholic) and then gives one of the best performances on film.
I’m not kidding. I’ll go into it more down there, but Cage, in one unbroken take, goes from confused to sad to angry to accepting to vengeful. It’s one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen, and it stems entirely from the fact that Nicolas Cage, when given the right script, is one hell of a performer.
After swearing vengeance, Red goes to his old friend (and probably former comrade in arms) Caruthers (Bill “I was in Commando and Predator” F*cking Duke). Caruthers gives Red a run-down on the Black Skulls and gives him “the Reaper,” Red’s old crossbow. Red forges a battle-axe and proceeds to get captured by the Skulls. However, he escapes and goes on a rampage, killing all of the bikers and taking a bunch of cocaine and LSD that make the movie, again, TRIPPY AS F*CK.
Red heads to where he thinks the Cult is, only to find the Chemist (Richard Brake), a drug manufacturer who tells Red where the cult actually is. Red proceeds to the cult’s church and kills several members of the cult with an axe before getting in a CHAINSAW DUEL, BECAUSE WHY THE HELL NOT???? He eventually kills all the members before finding Sand, who is now openly a pathetic waste of a man. Sand begs for mercy, but Red opts to crush his skull with his bare hands instead. He burns the church down, gets in his car, and hallucinates that Mandy is with him again and that he’s driving away from an otherworldly landscape that resembles her paintings.
First off, this movie trips so much balls that the doses of LSD that the characters take pretty much are superfluous but, when they do take drugs, the film style starts to shift accordingly so that things are blurry or focused almost at random while the sound gets distorted and echo-y. The colors and style throughout the film, as well as the strange lingering cinematography, really do make this feel like what I imagine a good acid trip would be. Musically, this movie is fantastic. It’s very 80s with an appropriate amount of Synth, but also manages to keep everything feeling just a hair off at even the most normal times, then turns the crazy up to eleven when called upon.
Second, the film starts slow and peacefully, focused mostly on Red and Mandy, but manages to avoid actually being too expository, something that I WILL ALWAYS LAUD. If you can convey a character’s backstory without it feeling contrived, I think that’s amazing. This film does it with both of the leads, and later with the antagonist, and never does it feel like it’s just awkward, unnatural exposition.
Third, HOLY HELL IS NICOLAS CAGE AMAZING. Seriously, this is the best performance he’s given in years. I think that aside from Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona, this is not just the best film he’s done, this is the best he’s ever been in a film. There’s one particular scene that I have to comment on. When Cage starts drinking again after seeing Mandy burned alive, it is one single, unbroken take in which Cage clearly improvises a ton, and all of it works. In this sequence, Cage perfectly embodies someone who has just experienced the kind of thing he has. For no reason whatsoever, he just had his best friend and lover abducted, tortured, and murdered while he was helpless to do anything. He nails it. I just regret that I can’t find it online to show you.
The only thing in the movie that’s better than that scene is the CHEDDAR GOBLIN. Yes, the Cheddar Goblin is a fake commercial which immediately precedes the above scene and was done by the crew that made the famous “Too Many Cooks” short for Adult Swim. It’s just as insane as the movie, but in a more grounded way, if you can understand. If you can’t, here’s the ad.
I cannot recommend this movie enough. If you can stand gore (because the third act is damned gory, although in a cartoonish way), you should watch this film. It’s the kind of movie that almost escapes definition, except that it’s what you would find on an 80s Heavy Metal album cover. If you ever wanted to see one of those come to life, then you need to see this movie. If you love Nicolas Cage, then you need to see this movie. If you have a lot of pot on hand, then you need to smoke it and see this movie.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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