Written by: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Directed by: Panos Cosmatos
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, and Linus Roache
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I come for the reaper."
Describing films with the high concept lexicon has almost become trite, but Mandy almost demands to be spoken of in such terms, at least at first glance. With his bold sophomore effort, Panos Cosmatos splashes together so many familiar—if not incongruent—aesthetics onto the well-worn, grime and gore-soaked canvas of a revenge film that you’re tempted to consider it as pure homage or pastiche. Neon hues flood the frame to a swelling synth score as a maniacal cult unleashes hell with demonic bikers, practically inviting comparison to any number of similar efforts from the grindhouse heyday. But as it wears on, Mandy gradually transcends these trappings and ascends to an ethereal plane, effectively dragging its vengeful lover logline into a haunting, ruminative space.
A timeless—and typically rousing—quest for blood becomes the stuff a melancholy epic, with Cosmatos’s style rendering it into a something like a feature length companion film for a prog metal adaptation of a lost fantasy novel. Suffice it to say, it turns out that Mandy is actually unlike anything you’ve ever seen: a wild, unhinged, and haunting projection of a filmmaker’s creative id streaked right onto the side of a metal band’s touring van.
Cosmatos isn’t bluffing with the film’s title, either: while this woman’s (Andrea Riseborough) grisly fate is woven into this genre's DNA, her presence looms throughout. We first see her full of life, painting her latest work and eager to show it to her boyfriend Red Miller (Nicolas cage), a rugged logger who’s just happy to be home with his beloved. We watch these two make what outsiders would consider to be small talk; these two, however, are obviously entranced by the other’s every word. A conversation about favorite planets blooms into Red’s digression about Galactus, the Marvel Universe’s Eater of Planets. Watching TV unlocks a memory from Mandy’s childhood, prompting her to recount a traumatizing story about her father teaching how to kill baby starlings, which stirs Red to tighten his embrace.
Less charitable viewers might call this slow or deliberate; I’d consider it luxuriant: this couple lives a simple but idyllic life, nestled within the cozy pines of the Shadow Mountains, and Cosmatos is careful to delicately arrange this tableau before upending it. Destruction arrives via simple chance, when the leader of a demonic death cult (Linus Roache) catches a glimpse of Mandy riding past their van. Smitten by this stranger’s glance, he becomes obsessed to the point of stalking the woman to her lakeside home, where he and his cult spend the night torturing her before eventually burning her death—all as Red looks on in horror.
The second half of the formula—the rip roaring, rousing revenge—arrives dutifully, if not somewhat erratically. Very few (if any) movies of this ilk hinge on their hero cradling his dead wife’s ashes before downing a bottle of booze in his underwear, his grief surfacing as discomfiting, guttural moans. But because this is Panos Cosmatos directing Nicolas Cage, that’s exactly where Mandy begins to ramp up—if, indeed, it can truly be said to even do that. Like the rest of the film, this stretch is also a moody, existential trip, this time right into the magenta-stained caverns of a man’s destroyed soul. Unfolding to the steady, electronic hum of Johann Johannson’s sparse but striking score, it’s not a particularly urgent one, as Cosmatos allows it, too, to unfold like a hazy dream corroding into a nightmare.
Mandy might carry the pretense of a revenge movie, but it doesn’t always carry the rousing swagger typically associated with the genre. Instead, Cosmatos marries those grindhouse impulses to an art house sensibility, in the process crafting an exquisitely fucked-up thing of awful, sublime beauty in Mandy. It mostly reminds me of what Nicolas Winding Refn has been up to in his most recent efforts, particularly Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon, which similarly lean on otherworldly hues and evocative synth scores to create mesmerizing descents into disturbing spaces. These are very much the movies some folks have in mind when they insist on the term “elevated horror," as if this genre and art are somehow mutually exclusive. Cosmatos especially insists on the contrary with Mandy by transforming one of the most base, visceral grindhouse staples into a metaphysical howl of anguish wailing across a landscape full of hellspawn bikers, chainsaws, severed limbs, and oversized blades forged out of pure vengeance.
But for all this deranged violence, Cosmatos tethers Mandy with captivating characters. Riseborough’s Mandy is unruffled and aloof, unflinching even in the face of Roache’s lunatic ramblings. In the eyes of this Manson wannabe, her biggest transgression is laughing off his delusions of grandeur as he broadcasts his messiah complex. For his part, Roache is unsettlingly fascinating, channeling 70s-era Richard Lynch for a weirdo performance for the ages. His Jeremiah Sand is both lyrical and profane, charming and utterly repulsive; rare is the scumbag that’s so entrancing and absolutely deserving of having his head caved in. Other reliable genre hands like Bill Duke and Richard Brake appear as archetypal guides for Red once his journey takes on mythic proportions: they provide weaponry, information, and directions with preternatural accuracy, not unlike the various oracles and companions of ancient lore.
Cage, then, becomes the something like Orpheus as he descends into Hades by way of Gustave Dore or Vincent Di Fate. By this point, Cage has cultivated a particular, eccentric persona, often marked by bizarre tics and vocal inflections. Cosmatos deftly plays off of and subverts expectations by pitching Cage at a lower frequency. He’s not completely muted, as both the aforementioned bathroom theatrics and a bit about Red’s beloved shirt almost inspire the wry chuckles associated with some Cage performances; however, even these outbursts somehow feel heartbreaking within the film’s bleak context. It’s almost like Cosmatos took Mandy as a challenge: turn Nic Cage loose as a feral agent of vengeance, yet make it genuinely haunting and affecting rather than exhilarating or risible. Unsurprisingly, he succeeds since Cage is among he finest talents of his generation and manages to capture Red’s weary, longing, and shattered essence. His climactic smile as he rides off into a crimson-soaked sunset is the film’s indelible image: it indicates neither rancorous satisfaction nor weary complacency, but rather a final glimpse into this dead-eyed man’s fractured psyche.
In many ways, Cage’s performance best reflects what Cosmatos's aim with Mandy. It’s probably the last sort of thing you’d expect from a movie billed as “a Nicolas Cage revenge movie set in 1983,” right down to its exploitation of the period setting. A far cry from the typical neon-splashed, nostalgia-glazed depiction of the age of excess, this is a more sullen, subdued portrayal highlighted by an ominous Reagan speeches and a bizarre commercial featuring an infamous “Cheddar Goblin" mascot. Between this and Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos seems intent on uncovering the latent darkness mildewing just beneath the decade’s sleek façade, much like Stephen King has often done for 50s Boomer nostalgia. Mandy isn’t necessarily about that, but there’s some interesting generational interplay at work when you consider that it’s effectively about Flower Power era flameouts wreaking havoc in an era that saw that generation begin to exert its influence on the country’s politics.
Ultimately, though, Mandy strives to be something more timeless and elemental. Not that the world has exactly been starved for yet another riff on this tale, but this one at least has the decency to shoot for the fucking moon. Cosmatos and Cage go big, providing iconic shots and eternally cool moments: an absurd chainsaw duel and a blood-spattered Red striking a match against a severed head, and geysers of blood erupting throughout its climax. For some fleeting moments, Mandy perhaps is the film you expect it to be, especially if, like me, you’re getting around to it months after it’s practically become a meme. (Brief digression: here’s where I readily admit I don’t get the love for the jarring, atonal Cheddar Goblin gag, but to each his own!)
But when the chaos settles and the blood begins to dry on Cage’s face, it’s the quieter beats that linger on, like a shot of Red watching the dust of Mandy’s remains slip through his fingers to some wistful flourishes in Johnasson’s score. For all its outlandish posturing, Mandy is genuinely poignant beneath its layers of familiarity and homage Sure, you could say that it feels like Cosmatos’s delirious ode to Clive Barker, George Miller, Sam Raimi, any number of Euro-horror luminaries, fantasy novels, heavy metal, and even Z-movie schlock like Nightbeast, but it’s much easier (and more accurate) to simply call it what it is: the one and only Mandy.
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