Directed by: Panos Cosmatos
Runtime: 121 minutes
As a self-confessed nerd-virgin when it comes to the use of both legal and illicit mind-altering substances, let me preface this review of Mandy—the second feature film from Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos—with the following statement: it’s one hell of a trip. And I’m not talking about your ‘nice-Saturday-afternoon-catching-a-flick’ type of movie-going experience either. Oh no. Mandy is a full-blown cinematic overdose. A shot in the arm for today’s complacent movie-going public, dulled to the point of tedium on a diet of shiny yet hollow comic-book adaptation blockbusters, straight-to-streaming garbage and an endless cycle of reboots and reboots of said reboots. It’s an experience that feels somewhat akin to putting a slice of film reel on your tongue and having it effervesce into a brain-melting gateway to some distant and euphoric transcendental plane beyond.
At its core, Mandy functions as an homage to the quintessential grindhouse B-movies of the ’70s and ’80s. Think midnight screenings, sticky floors, grainy film stock, drive-in theatres, projector burns and questionable activities in the shadows. Now admittedly, this particular audience hankering for cheap ’n’ nasty film never really disappeared as such, instead just waxing and waning with generational genre preferences. However, out of the ashes of VHS/DVD rentals and through the dawn of viral internet marketing, studio ventures into the murky realm of exploitation and grindhouse film over the last decade have managed to pierce the mainstream consciousness of your average ticket-goer, with varying degrees of success: like the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double-feature collaboration Death Proof/Planet Terror; Rodriguez’s work on Machete; Steven Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (also one of 2017’s best films, in my humble opinion); and to a lesser extent, the tonal restraint in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives.
From the opening shots of Mandy, with warm, sweeping shots of pine-tree forests, bright red opening credits and the plaintive melody of King Crimson’s ‘Starless’ in the background, I knew that this film would be different, if not slightly off. The first hour of Mandy is the very definition of a slow-burn. The protagonist, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage), is a gruff yet vulnerable tough guy adorned with tattoos and a beer belly who’s clearly done with the hard life. He has fully embraced a hermitic lifestyle with the eponymous Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough): an ethereal and withdrawn woman, obsessed with painting the vivid, mythic landscapes of pulp fantasy novels as a form of escapism, who is both physically (obvious facial scarring; a visually striking case of heterochromia) and emotionally (backstory daddy issues) wounded.
Despite this cosy lifestyle and seemingly idyllic surround, Cosmatos (son of Greek filmmaker George P. Cosmatos, known for his work with Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra and Tombstone) allows the relationship between Ray and Mandy to develop with a curious sense of detachment. That is until we meet the film’s antagonist, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a failed folk singer and newly-ordained cult leader for the Children of the New Dawn. A drug-addled Sand, teetering on the edge of his own sense of divine self-importance, has one fleeting drive-by glimpse of the film’s titular character before deciding that he must have her, instructing his faithful followers turned would-be kidnappers to do his bidding. And it’s around here, as you might imagine, that all hell breaks loose.
Throughout the film, Cosmatos employs many of the stylistic visual hallmarks found within his first feature film, 2010’s Beyond The Black Rainbow: a screen saturated in alternating hues of blue, red and purple; piercing double lens flares; disorienting dream sequences; crawling pans and close shots; rambling dialogue that’s minimalistic, super cheesy but also overtly self-aware. And despite years of academia telling me that this word is pejorative when used in an artistic sense, Mandy is curated to be a wholly passive viewing experience. It’s not that the film entirely lacks depth or substance, it’s more that Cosmatos knows deep down that these things aren’t really necessary to tell this particular story. And this use of narrative sleight-of-hand, or perhaps, absence-of-said-hand, is entirely deliberate. Mandy doesn’t need subtext to be understood; what you see is the text. As the film pivots half-way through into a straight-forward revenge horror, quickly descending into sequences of hypnotic psychedelia, ritualistic sacrifice and hyper-kinetic madness, it’s certainly a sight to behold.
After years of teasing us with warped method acting, tabloid headlines and an endearingly kooky persona, Cage’s performance here as the damaged and wrathful Ray is about as close as you’ll get to pure, unhinged insanity captured on film—Cage literally goes ‘full Cage’ in this one, and it’s as exhilarating to watch as it is terrifyingly meme-worthy. At the risk of spoiling the film’s second half, here are some brief highlights to look out for: a potentially supernatural motorcycle gimp gang; a chainsaw duel; dismembered body parts and flaming severed heads; an Evil Dead-aping axe-wielding montage; blood-soaked gore with a delectable, jam-like consistency; the biggest pile of cocaine on set since Scarface; and Cage covered in blood, staring intently into the camera with what can only be described as his best serial-killer smile. The score from late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is also suitably blood-pumping, wringing out tension through a blitz of warbling John Carpenter-esque synths, glacial doom and sporadic charges of heavy metal. (If there’s truly any justice in this world, Mandy will do for Black Sabbath and Motley Crüe t-shirts what Refn’s Drive did for white satin bomber jackets.)
Watching Mandy with some friends, the most frequent utterance I heard during the two-hour runtime, often with a tone of sheer bewilderment and morbid fascination, was: “What is this film?” And that’s an entirely valid question. Yes, Mandy could be viewed as a straight-forward revenge horror film. Yes, Mandy is also a faithful homage to the grindhouse B-movies of old. But it’s also the aesthetic vehicle for Cosmatos to flex his genre muscles, incorporating elements of schlock, gore, satire and the Acid Western to create a cinematic pastiche rich in grim detail, vivid colour and overly dramatic emotional beats. While these individual elements may function elsewhere in isolation, in Mandy they become so enmeshed as part of Cosmatos’ apocryphal vision, that the removal of any one aesthetic device would leave the rest feeling strangely out of place. Mandy is without a doubt one of the most divisive films of this year. It’s also highly enjoyable, a little bit silly and a rollicking good-time. Some will hate it, others will revel in it; however, if you can stomach the trip, I’d say it’s well worth the journey.