MANDY is a deranged bad trip of a movie from director Panos Cosmatos (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW). It features a high grade mega-acting performance from Nicolas Cage (FIREBIRDS), and Cosmatos is the rare director to cinematically keep pace with Cage’s style rather than try to balance it out. He and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb (KING COBRA) peel off the skin of reality and find the painted covers of obscure fantasy novels and death metal albums beneath.
Cage plays Red Miller, a lumberjack who lives in a cabin in the Shadow Mountains circa 1983 with his fantasy illustrator girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, OBLIVION). One day they get kidnapped by a demonic biker gang and psychotic Christian cult led by hippie folk singer Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK), who strings Red up with barb wire and (SPOILER) burns Mandy alive, leaving her to crumble into ashes in his hands.
But he escapes and gathers some weapons and comes back and fucking fucks shit up. And that’s enough to hang a movie on in my opinion but explaining the premise does not remotely describe the movie, which seems from frame one to be drugged out of its mind and/or existing on a different astral plane. I bet when they try to play BORN LOSERS on Civic TV, this is how it broadcasts – a psychedelic fever dream revenge nightmare.
You know how some people (incorrectly) complain about Jack Nicholson already being crazy at the beginning of THE SHINING? Cage starts out calm, but stylistically the movie’s already at “Here’s Johnny.” The otherworldly approach includes intentionally long and slow scenes, little known about the characters, about 65% of the dialogue I have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about, and a chunk of that is pitched or slowed down so they sound like demons. The storytelling exactly matches the symphony of drones and guitars and dashes of synth on the score by the late genius Jóhann Jóhannsson. Pulsing shadows cover faces, often washed in red or blue tint, dusted with dancing digital grain. Reality seems to merge with Mandy’s art, even switching to animation at times.
I kinda wish it was tighter. It’s a bit of an endurance test, for me especially the section after meeting Mandy and Red and before seeing Red wreak his savage vengeance. The torment part.
But when Red escapes and goes back home it’s like the movie is loudly revving the engine of the four wheeler he’ll soon be roaring around on, silhouetted against apocalyptic crimson haze. He stumbles into the cabin in a near trance, stands and watches a commercial on the TV they left on. To me there’s something kinda profound and hilarious and true about the fact that he has just gone through one of the worst tragedies a human could experience and this silliness is what welcomes him home. The first time he speaks after the death of the love of his life is to mumble the ridiculous name of a consumer product to himself.
And next is a tour de force uninterrupted take of him in the bathroom with no pants on swigging vodka and going from shock to monstrous rage to intense grief. Sand has invaded the life of funny, charming, laid back Nicolas Cage and broken him down to the point that mega-acting is the only sane reaction.
Though generally more loose and less cold than BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, there are a couple of great controlled, show-offy directorial moves like that scene. Another one is Jeremiah’s long, cryptic speech, his face filling the screen and repeatedly changing into Mandy’s face listening to him, then back. The shifts are so subtle it took me a while to determine that was what was happening, but I definitely saw Mandy’s scar appearing and disappearing. It’s different, but I’ll go ahead and consider it a tribute to the groundbreaking morphing sequence from Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video.
Some movies MANDY made me think of, in approximate order: EATEN ALIVE, LORD OF ILLUSIONS, HELLRAISER, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, LORDS OF SALEM, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, COBRA, HEAVY METAL, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, THE EVIL DEAD, NIGHTBREED, MANHUNTER, FRIDAY THE 13TH 3D. But not really in the same genre as and much stranger and more hallucinatory than any of those.
I get a kick out of a certain amount of audience alienation in a movie. To me it’s kinda funny and kinda that type of subversive spirit that some people describe as “punk rock.” But also the older I get I gotta admit that too much of that punk rock’ll turn me into a narc. At some point in a movie I gotta have some kind of connection, human or otherwise, or it’s gonna lose me. Cosmatos I think intentionally cartwheels right along that edge. I never reviewed his debut BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW because I loved its mood and style and the experience of it, but I have to admit I didn’t feel as involved in it as I wanted by the end and didn’t feel I had anything new to add to the conversation about it, which was being handled very well by people more on the movie’s wavelength.
I like MANDY alot more – it’s only slightly more attached to genre convention, but it’s grounded in the sweet humanity of the love between Mandy and Red, even if they’re damaged weirdos who lay around talking about their favorite planets. Normally revenge movies have some kind of pure All-American existence that’s violated by punks or creeps or devil worshippers or gangs. Here we have hazy stoners who live out in the woods listening to heavy metal and reading crazy fantasy novels, and they get terrorized by depraved psychos that Red is able to describe as “Jesus freaks.” Later the camera ogles a triangular church with such fetishistic attention to its geometry that it seems like some kind of occult ritual, even with that big ol’ correctly oriented cross there.
As challengingly off-putting as MANDY is before the turning point into undeniable awesomeness, I’m already getting the itch to go watch it again. This is a weird comparison, but it reminds me of my reaction to THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, which I had some small reservations about at first blush and then kinda fell in love with upon further analysis. The similarity is the amount of detail put into what people susceptible to buzz words loved calling “world building” back when AVATAR came out. Mandy has artwork, she has a favorite author, we see titles of and hear readings from some of his work. Jeremiah has a folk album. According to the credits, some of the weapons are called “The Beast,” “Tainted Blade” and “Horn of Abraxas.” I don’t believe the cause of Mandy’s scar was specified. I mentioned that commercial (which is directed by Casper Kelly, the guy that did Too Many Cooks). And I’m sure there’s an explanation or back story for the #44 baseball jersey and many other props. We need a visual dictionary like they do for the Star Wars movies. When I first read about the movie I jokingly offered to write a novelization of it, but I would be unqualified – I honestly wish Cosmatos and his co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn had done one.
I think it’s safe to say that Cosmatos has established himself as a filmatist whose work has little in common with that of his father George Pan Cosmatos (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II). But I found it a delight to see him make a film where the hero forges a shimmery, exotic battle ax to fight religious freaks and I can’t help but think of Brian Thompson’s weird curved knife and underground serial killer cult in COBRA.
I also very much appreciate the classical action movie tradition of going to a trailer to obtain weapons from an unexplained old friend who
1) is played by Bill motherfuckin PREDATOR “you know you done fucked up right?” Duke
2) delivers a joyously melodramatic monologue that may be the only exposition ever provided in the movie. He gives a Just How Evil Are They and origin myth for the Black Skulls biker gang and provides Red with a crossbow called “The Reaper” that he says will “cut through bone like a fat kid through cake.”
Don’t get me wrong. MANDY feels more like a potent intoxicant or primal myth than a straight action or horror movie, but it does deliver some of that good shit. There is a chainsaw duel. He mutilates a guy in such a way that blood covers his entire face including his teeth and then he laughs about it. Cosmatos revels in transforming Cage into some kind of post-apocalyptic pagan warrior, a refugee from an obscure album cover by some brain damaged Frank Frazetta acolyte. Robert Rodriguez probly dreamt of having this kinda shit in GRINDHOUSE, but this has no tongue in cheek, no wink, just a half smile of “fuck you, I know what’s awesome.”
The movie is currently in one of those limited theaters-and-VOD-at-the-same-time releases, but here we have it playing a week of only 9 pm shows. I saw it with a big crowd that clapped at times and seemed very primed to guffaw at Cage’s most extreme sounds and expressions, which I mostly disagreed with. But I recommend the theatrical experience if available. Yes, it’s fun to hear a crowd applaud Cage for spontaneously snorting some coke he finds during a rampage. But more importantly, letting the flashes blind you and the sound wash over you seems like an important part of the movie’s hypnotism.
Although I guess at home you could play it backwards to see if it has secret incantations or something.
Ethical disclosure brag: I had a correspondence with director Cosmatos before he directed BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, and I was friends with co-writer Stewart-Ahn many years ago when he lived in Seattle. I don’t have any inside knowledge of their artistic intent and I think I’ve written this review the same as I would if they were strangers, but I believe in being transparent about this sort of thing in case you disagree.
P.S. MANDY is produced by SpectreVision, Elijah Wood’s company that does cool low budget horror movies, so I wanted to mention that Wood and Cage starred together in an obscure, oddball cop movie that I liked called THE TRUST.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.