One does not simply watch Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy; it can only be experienced, as it’s truly a film with no equal and unlike anything you’ve seen before. The story and theme may be simple – graphic revenge for wrongs done – but there’s nothing simple about Cosmatos’ surreal execution and style, which recalls the wildly-tinted shades of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and the stark brutality of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left.
With influences like these, Mandy would be found sitting proudly next to them on a video store shelf, its cardboard slipcover fraying under a yellowing plastic case. This undiscovered-gem-in-a-rental-shop vibe is exactly what Cosmatos is going for; it shows with every long take, every one of the late Jóhann Jóhannson’s droning synths, and Nicolas Cage’s beautifully unhinged performance.
The long takes keep us buried in the film, no matter how uncomfortable Cosmatos’ mise-en-scène – how he stages and fills a frame – might be. This is the most important factor in Mandy’s feel – we’re not battered with over-edited sequences and shaky camerawork. Each shot speaks an involving deliberateness intent on bonding you with the subjects in the frame; the further we go into the film, the more disturbing this bond becomes.
After all, how can you go wrong with a film containing Nicolas Cage hand-forging a wicked halberd (named in the credits as The Beast) not long before he runs into a chemist soaking blotter sheets of LSD with a tiger in a cage beside him? It’s this level of batshit-crazy Mandy achieves almost instantly, and that last sentence doesn’t even begin to cover the kinds of sights Mandy wants to show you. The visual effects only serve to enhance the madness and add creepy symbolism to an already insane film. Some are done in-camera with strobing lights, varying color palettes, and gruesome makeup effects; others are done in the digital realm and with surprisingly effective animation all at once jarring us into and out of this dream-state. Take away all of that, and you’ll see a revenge plot no different from many other films. Yet the familiar plot and Cosmatos’ visuals work symbiotically; without one, the other dies.
The year is 1983, lending credence to the feel, tempo, and tone of the film. Red Miller (Cage) and the titular Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) live an isolated, homey life in the Shadow Mountains. He’s a logger, seen in the early goings taking a chainsaw to a tree and riding a helicopter back home. She’s a clerk at the local quickie-mart gas station in a location so remote and seldom-traveled, she uses a cardboard pencil box for a cash register. They make their lives together in an open house full of floor-to-ceiling windows, going to sleep in a bed with a direct view of the stars above.
Cosmatos doesn’t give us any moment of rest, even in these scenes of solitude and happiness. Spooky overlays accompany Red and Mandy’s pillow talk, Mandy reads from a book with her narration forebodingly altered, and other unsettling notions are juxtaposed over this placid couple. It doesn’t stop with visuals, as Jóhannson’s haunting musical strains provide a sinister backdrop to typical couple-in-love sequences pushed near-nauseatingly out of the realm of normalcy. The word “normal” does not apply here; this first act is as close to normal as this film gets, but it’s like saying “Halifax, Nova Scotia is right next to Los Angeles, California” – it’s physically and for all the world impossible.
Conversely, we’re introduced to Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), leader of a fringe Christian sect whose methods and machinations are anything but Christ-like. While Red and Mandy represent love, he represents a false love clothed in what he thinks is his God-given mandate. He treats his six followers with sexist disrespect and outright contempt, believing himself to be above what the world – and, by his insane rationalization, God – has given him. So when he happens upon Mandy walking to her store, he gives into his delusion that he is entitled to everything God has made, and orders his right-hand man Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) to take her. To do so, Brother Swan enlists the help of four masked and deformed bikers, all of whose minds, hearts, and bodies have been utterly corrupted by badly-cooked drugs.
The second and third acts are a direct result of what happens when a supposed “Man of God” takes away another man’s representation of the divine. Jesus Christ says in the Gospel of Matthew, “All who will take up the sword, will die by the sword.” Clearly, he didn’t mean the blood-saturated path of vengeance Red (who is, as you’ll discover by the middle of the second act, is very aptly named) embarks upon, stoically taking up arms to wipe every trace of this cult and the bikers off this planet.
Nicolas Cage and Linus Roache play two men at opposite ends of the spectrum, both having been pushed to their limits and wanting to take it out on their aggressors. Jeremiah bears a very Peter Fonda-like smoothness with a polished, razor-sharp edge, yet breaks easily when rattled, like a petulant child who cannot face not being given what he wants. Roache wears this odd duality convincingly and with scary precision, full of despicable confidence when Jeremiah’s on his game and wheedling bitterness when he’s not.
However, it’s Nicolas Cage who roars (both figuratively and literally) through the second half of this film with an Old Testament-style wrath, not caring one bit about the blood crusting his face and clothes as he wages war upon these charlatans. We can see him pulling every ounce of hate from the darkest recesses of his soul to give Red a frightening animalism balanced by a fragile humanity seen in the most curious of circumstances. “YOU RIPPED MY SHIRT! YOU RIPPED MY SHIRT!” he thunders at one of the bikers during a thrashingly-choreographed knife fight; moments like these threaten to dive into the mania Cage is most known for bringing to outlandish roles. Thankfully, Cosmatos lets him most of the way off the chain just before overexaggeration, allowing him lunatic freedom combined with drive and purpose.
It’s been twenty-four hours since my first viewing of Mandy, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Cosmatos has created a strange world with familiar techniques, a melding from which springs a diabolical warping of good, evil, and the justice which makes men whole, even if it is only in one’s mind. Using time-honored horror ingredients – the blackened irises of the drugged, the faceless shapes roaming the forest, drenching sets and actors with pervasive color, basic shadows and light, and actors who fit their roles brutally well, among others – Cosmatos carves the visceral and unforgettable Mandy indelibly into our consciousness with no remorse or apology, anchored by one of the best performances of Nicolas Cage’s storied career.
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