“Style over substance.” It’s a catchy criticism often attributed to more artsy, avant-garde films that like to focus more on visuals, mood, and atmosphere, as opposed to conventional story and characterization. While I find the criticism a bit too simplistic and unfair when it comes to judging films, it’s definitely true that some filmmakers favor the artistic experience over more concrete emotion. Is that always a bad thing? Not really. You just better make sure you’re stylish enough. 
Deep in the woods live Red (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). They live a quiet life nearly completely isolated from society, only really interacting with other people at their respective jobs. Unfortunately, their peaceful life is soon disrupted a group of demented Christian cultists led by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). The cult holds them hostage and tortures them, culminating with Mandy’s death in front of Red. The cult leaves Red for dead, but Red’s not dead. He’s still very much alive, but now fueled with a lust for brutal, bloody vengeance. 
Revenge films are simple by their design. They’re stories intended to have the protagonist get wronged and then take steps to get back at their wrongdoers. There’s not much to them at face value, but there’s of course plenty of stories and thematic depth you can mine from them. Kill Bill is an excellent example, where the base premise is schlocky, but the execution is masterfully done. Co-writer/director Panos Cosmatos wanted to tell a story about two lovers who are torn apart by evil, but for whatever reason, he felt that he needed 2 full hours to do it. I really loved the relationship between Red and Mandy. All of their scenes felt completely genuine, like a real couple who has been in love and comfortable for a long time. For the eventual loss and revenge to be hard hitting, developing the characters is necessary, but it takes over an hour for the story to actually pick up and get to doing what it wants to do. 
There’s not a whole lot of dialogue, but a lot of shots just people walking around a hellish looking landscape, staring at each other, or just straight up, zany ultraviolence. Like a lot of films like this, the slowly paced, dragged out scenes do feel pretentious, such as one lengthy scene of Jeremiah monologuing. Perhaps this was the point, to show the utter pretentiousness in Jeremiah’s character, but it’s a point that could be communicated in a much shorter time. The pace and structure end up being the film’s greatest downfall. Most revenge films have the inciting incident happen within the first act and then the rest of the story goes from there. Since we spend so much time with the characters and don’t get the plot going until an hour end, the actual revenge portion feels rushed and lazy. Once Red sets out on his quest, it’s a scene of him gruesomely killing a victim and moving onto the next one to just gruesomely kill them. It just feels like a checklist to get to the end. For such a lengthy setup that was somewhat subverting the typical revenge formula, you think Cosmatos be a bit more creative in the actual revenge portion. 
While the film is very methodically paced and I found the first act to be especially tedious, I was constantly mesmerized by the incredibly vivid visuals and foreboding atmosphere. Pretty much the entire film is bathed in red, especially during the grimmer second half. It’s not just a quest for revenge for Red, but his descent further and further into madness. His quiet, normal life has been disrupted by the weird and he has no choice but to embrace it. Forging his own axe, snorting cocaine off a piece of glass, crushing a guy’s head with his bare hands. It’s all incredibly bonkers and just gets crazier and crazier until the final frame. There’s a large heavy metal theme throughout, and that comes through in Johann Johansson’s incredible (and unfortunately final) score. There’s a lot of distorted guitar effects and droning synths that just get louder and louder as Red goes on. It’s all like a terrible acid trip that just keeps getting worse and worse, with no escape in sight. It’s the perfect analogy, considering some of the antagonists are a group of psycho bikers whose brains have been fried by a bad batch of LSD. 

Nicolas Cage is undoubtedly the best person to play this kind of twisted role. He’s an actor that can do quiet, crazy, and everything in between to perfection. It just depends on the script he’s given. Well, Cosmatos’ script perfectly complements Cage’s sensibilities. You want Nicolas Cage silently brooding? You got it. You want him screaming and grimacing at the camera? You got that too! With somebody who’s in so much garbage, it’s nice that he gets a lot of opportunities to show his range and really become the character. You feel all of his pain, anguish, rage, fear, and everything else. It’s difficult to imagine anybody else in the role because he just carries the movie that well. 

The atmosphere, style, and sheer sense of insanity provided for a lot of entertainment, but the near completely lack of pace and structure kept me from fully loving Mandy. For most of the final act, I was thinking, “I think I’m loving this, but I’m honestly kind of bored.” While he doesn’t offer a whole lot in the story department, Cosmatos more than makes up for it with his heavy, dreadful atmosphere, gorgeous cinematography, and a stellar performance from Nicolas Cage that really showcases the best of his abilities. This is certainly style over substance, but it’s a beautiful, yet grotesque, style. One that you can’t really bear to look away from. 


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