Director: Panos Cosmatos
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Richard Brake, Bill Duke, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Line Pillet, Clément Baronnet
When you know Nicolas Cage is appearing in a film, you also know that, for better or worse, you are in for a treat. Mandy has enjoyed some festival-circuit success this year and has been praised overall by critics, so it looks like it would lean towards the more enjoyable end of the treat spectrum. Having been initially released (in a limited run in a few cinemas) around Halloween also gave it that extra boost of being a horror/thriller with an arty twist, something a bit different from your classic John Carpenter or modern James Wan. With its 80s-influenced soundtrack, cinematography and general B-movie vibe, is it worth sitting down to watch of a dark winter’s eve, or is this just another Nic Cage-fronted vehicle with no actual wheels for support?
It’s 1983, and Red Miller (Cage) lives in a cabin in the middle of a forest near Shadow Mountains with his girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (Riseborough). Mandy enjoys their quiet existence together in the middle of nowhere, whereas Red is thinking about uprooting them both elsewhere. Through their conversations, Red and Mandy both reveal some personal traumas in their past, something that has (likely) brought them together and to end up content. One day, while out walking, Mandy catches the eye of Children of the New Dawn cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Roache). He orders one of his followers to bring Mandy to him. Mandy is kidnapped by a demonic biker gang whom the cult hire, named the Black Skulls. Mandy however does not take to Jeremiah, and things take a sour turn when he has her brutally murdered. After also being kidnapped by the cult, Red swears revenge on the cult members and their hellish associates, unleashing all kinds of fury on all who get in the way of his ultimate target: Jeremiah.
Panos Cosmatos (son of director George P. Cosmatos) has little work behind him prior to Mandy, however, it’s quite telling through this film that he has taken the time to understand his craft in order to create something quite unique for modern film. As mentioned, the tone and aesthetics of the film hark back to horror B-movies, which in a way is quite comforting and refreshing. It’s familiar yet new amongst the legions of horrors and thrillers that are created these days only for a quick scare and a profit. The cinematography alone sets the film firmly in the 80s, both physically and then editorially, but then cinematographer Benjamin Loeb allows himself some more modern shots that are breath-taking in an already gut-punching world. Add on top of this some unique scoring by the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson and you really will be pulled right back to 1983.
Cosmatos makes the most of Riseborough’s calm and unassuming presence to pull the audience in to the character of Mandy during the first heady half of the movie, and he utilises Cage’s ability to go slightly(!) over the top when expressing his characters’ emotions to guide audiences through the insanity of the latter half, almost creating two separate films. This framework suits the minimal plot well, as without it the whole film could have fallen apart, with the overtly metaphorical nature through which the themes are presented potentially leaving audiences scratching their heads. That’s not to say Mandy doesn’t have its comical moments, in fact, it’s jam-packed with them. Cage has some classic lines that perhaps only he could pull off (“You are a vicious snowflake”, for example), and the way Red interacts with his enemies is also quite off the charts at times. It provides some relief to aspects of the story that are otherwise incredibly absurd or thematically heavy. The correlation between Jeremiah and his cult and Charles Manson and his “family” is one of the heavier themes of the film. Add love, drugs and religion on top of that and you’re looking at something not for the faint of heart. The gore factor is also very much present, to the point where Red becomes somewhat reminiscent of Ash in The Evil Dead, chainsaw included.
Cage does a good job of portraying Red and the various attributes of his character. One particular scene that takes place in the bathroom of the cabin about half way through the film is indicative of this, when Red is very quickly going through a range of emotions after Mandy’s death. On the one hand it adds to the aforementioned absurdity that the film thrives on, but on the other hand it’s a truthful depiction of a person trying to understand the trauma they’ve just experienced, or at least allowing their mind to do whatever it needs to do in order to not completely lose the plot. That in itself can cause all kinds of absurdity. Riseborough gets the chance to shine before Cage does, taking the first half of the film for Mandy. The titular character is an odd one, and Riseborough does a great job of making her unique in every way, from the lilt of her voice to her physicality and the depth of character that you can see through her enormous doe eyes alone. When Mandy succumbs to the effects of drugs forcefully administered to her, her oddness is exaggerated and rather than scare off an unassuming audience it pulls us in even more. Special mention must also go to Roache and his antagonist Jeremiah. Perhaps never has there been a character more in love with himself and desperate for everyone around him to love him. He is a despicable yet complicated man that no sane person could take seriously, and Roache does an awesome job of getting that across. It’s a tough one for an actor to take on if they don’t invest in such a character, but luckily that’s something Roache has done.
Mandy won’t necessarily be a film for everyone. Many may come away wondering what the actual hell they’ve just seen (in fact, everyone will, to an extent), but if you can let your head go to wherever it is Mandy, Red and/or Cosmatos takes you then you’ll be going on a thrilling ride. Cosmatos has set himself up to be quite the indie director if he chooses to stay on that path, otherwise it would be very interesting to see what he could offer up in mainstream cinema. Much like Lynch or Cronenberg, he can balance ludicrousness with relevant themes to create something that appears nonsensical but has a deeper meaning. Or something that can just be enjoyed as some late-night B-movie entertainment, it’s really your choice as to how you’d like to see this film. All that matters is that you do see it.