Compromise is an inherent part of filmmaking. Whether it’s budget, content, or time constrictions, it is rare that we hear about a director being completely satisfied with their film. Granted, there are exceptions. Directors working with pre-existing IPs (Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars) have a seemingly infinite budget and creative freedom, but for the non-billion dollar backed films, compromises undoubtedly must be made to see the film through. Spitting in the face of this sentiment is Mandy, the latest film from Panos Cosmatos (Beyond The Black Rainbow), who presents his uncompromising fever dream vision of revenge.
And oh what a vision it is.
Taking place in the 1980s Pacific Northwest, the protagonist Red (Nicolas Cage) lives a simple, but peaceful life with his loving companion Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Their quaint woodland life is upended when a cult, led by the vile Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), kidnaps Red and Mandy, shattering their world. Now, Red embarks on a blood-soaked, black metal infused journey against the cult and their otherworldly brethren.
The unapologetic insanity of the world Panos Cosmatos has created is Mandy’s greatest asset, in that it stands confidently in its ability to exist in a dimension of cosmic horror that is all its own. The film exudes an aesthetic of black metal horror filled with sickening characters that have no qualms about scraping the bottom of the barrel of despicable deeds. To be perfectly blunt, you, the audience, are utterly unprepared for what you are about to see but know that you are in capable hands.
While the first half hour is devoted to exposition, after that, shit starts to get weird. And it isn’t a gradual build-up of weirdness, rather heaping shovels full of it. A demonic biker gang. LSD cultists. A crossbow named Reaper. A Mythical battle axe. And chainsaw duels. This insanity leads to an unpredictable film which is equal parts exciting and a test of nerves that persists throughout. For instance, a golden gun wielding LSD chemist who has a Bengal tiger appears for one scene and is never seen again. LSD drinking hell bikers whose aesthetic would give Hellraiser a run for his money. None of it should make any sense, but in a world where nothing is supposed to make sense, it feels right at home. And just when you think the fever dream nature of Mandy is about to break, Cosmatos grabs you by the throat and thrusts you deeper into the dark abyss of his mind.
While Cosmatos’s mind has crafted this world, it is (the late) composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s hypnotic score and director of photography Benjamin Loeb’s impeccable lighting and cinematography that make Mandy a genuinely unique experience. Jóhannsson’s score is an effective combination of black metal infused with a healthy dose of electric strings that is equal parts chilling and angelic. It lulls the audience into a trance of complacency before feasting upon their sanity.
On the inverse, Loeb’s visuals pry open the viewer’s eyelids, daring them to blink. Blood red lighting explodes across scenes evoking apocalyptic red dawns illuminating the northwestern wilderness setting. This is largely what gives Mandy its fever-dream aesthetic, as it provides an ample pairing to the carnage unfolding on screen. Every scene demands your attention no matter the beauty or horror that’s unfolding. It is this harnessing of attention even from the mundane, that makes Mandy one of the most visually stunning movies of the year. I found both of these elements to be so intrinsic to the film’s DNA that it would not be nearly as affecting as it is without them.
I have never had great admiration for the particular brand of insanity that Nicholas Cage brings to his roles. In this case, Mandy feels like a film that was constructed solely with him in mind, and his usual interjection of psychotic energy feels at home in this volatile setting. Cage is exceptional and more memorable than past performances, but this is only due to the world that Cosmatos has crafted for him to coexist within. Then there is his relationship with Mandy, which feels surprisingly natural and heartwarming, a side of Cage rarely seen.
If Cage is the axe-wielding vestige of light in the dark, the inverse is Linus Roache’s embodiment of despicable evil. Every narcissistic utterance of Jeremiah Sand sends shivers down the spine, as his LSD induced religious zealots carry out his every depraved order. He commands every scene he appears in with drug-addled grandiose monologues that are haunting in their delivery. It’s this grandiose nature that has the audience cheering on Cage as he hacks and slashes his way through Roache’s minions.
And then there’s Andrea Riseborough, who fuels the entire film. Not only central to the plot, but what she lacks in dialogue she translates to the audience through movement and her interactions with Red. Every line she utters is central to the understanding of their relationship. Sharing a painful childhood story with Red, she shows an intimacy with him that carries more weight than a love scene ever could. There is no weak link amongst a cast who truly surprises in just how perfectly they fit the film.
To approach Mandy as you would any other Nicholas Cage movie would miss the intention of it entirely. Panos Cosmatos has crafted an utterly uncompromising vision of horror that is undoubtedly destined for cult status by horror fans. Though, to simply refer to it as horror would be disingenuous to just how blatantly different it is through and through. And yet further to his credit, Cosmatos never allows the film to take itself too seriously. For every viscerally violent scene, there is a light-hearted moment, such as when Red lights a cigarette off a recently severed head that is on fire. No matter the tone or intent of a scene. No matter how weird or depraved. Cosmato’s carries out his vision with a confidence few directors are capable of delivering.
If you are still on the fence as to whether you should see Mandy, watch the trailer, and if the premise of Nicholas Cage hunting “crazy evil” with a battle axe appeals to you, you’ll enjoy it just fine.
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