Having never dabbled in the part-time fun of hallucinogens nor witnessing the purported insanity that is Beyond The Black Rainbow, filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’s 2010 debut feature, one can safely assume a trip is in store with the heavy metal horror-show that is Mandy.
Mandy, a simple throwback to the singular 80’s trope of a man questing for revenge, at its core is a three-hander of performances (Nicolas Cage, Linus Roache, Andrea Riseborough) draped in psychedelic visuals. The performances themselves shine every bit as bright as the retro trickery being slapped on screen in the most artful of ways. And shine they must, for the first hour of the film, while not without its intrigue or stimulus, is beyond a slow burn; it’s simply slow. Slow in ways that films, modern or otherwise, don’t even attempt, nor should they. It is a dreamlike state from the moment the credits start, with characters waxing slow and thoughtful in bed about past traumas. Most films would do this, naturally, as a means to generate a connection with the audience, to garner sympathy for characters. Mandy doesn’t do this. It doesn’t not do this simply to subvert the tropes, it simply does it in a way so that our two characters, Red (Cage) and Mandy (Riseborough), lovers, can deepen their own bond.
Curled up together on a couch with her lover, Mandy tells a tale of a childhood memory. In one long, zooming take, she somberly, almost sleepily, details her father being pestered by a roost of starlings to the point of retrieving a pillow case and a crowbar. Mandy and her sisters are, in this simple retelling of the event, forced to kill after their father demonstrates. None of this story is reflected visually, an early trick of filmmaking—and there are many—and yet the picture is there for all to see. While Mandy tells her story, Red—a most un-Cagely Cage in this moment, and most every other moment in the film’s first hour—is quiet as a mouse, hanging on to her every word. He’s docile, loving, affectionate. In a previous exchange detailing planets of the solar system, Red reveals he prefers Saturn when prodded. He is the everyman, a logger that isn’t a fan of alcohol but can somehow work up the courage to tell an Erik Estrada themed “knock-knock” joke. He is a good guy.
And then the Cage is, well, uncaged.
With the introduction of the Children of the New Dawn, a seven-person cult freewheeling it in a van across the wooded, mountainous state, the dream of Mandy begins its inevitable descent into nightmare. Jeremiah Sand (Roache), leader of this cult, is, in typical bad guy fashion, is smitten by Mandy when he chances upon her. And, in atypical bad guy fashion, he orders minion after minion from his bunk bed to do his bidding. His slack-jawed male counterparts unleash a hellish biker gang thanks to the Ocarina of Time, unveiled in pulsing lazer-tag lighting, and the movie jettison’s forward towards the place audiences should be most comfortable: revenge.
Still, timeouts are taken to have acid trips within this grand acid trip, the already murky screen is replaced with brake-light red as Sand gives a speech in, yup, typical bad guy fashion, explaining his motives. The atypical? He does so in a white wizard robe while playing a record he composed himself, after a brief comparison to The Carpenters (though he fancies his music better, naturally). And his motives are in line with modern takedowns of male entitlement and ego. And, somehow, it works. Sand had come to the epiphany on a journey of discovery, a man self-purportedly once on the verge of nihilism, learned the ways of Jesus Christ and the understanding that he, Sand, is a part of everything and, thusly, is owed everything he desires. A long, face-melding scene that will undoubtedly help to put Roache’s Jeremiah Sand in the pantheon of classic cinematic villains. A long way this actor has come from descending down a well to retrieve his fallen son from and empathetically reminding him of why we fall.
The film, as has already been stated, is dripping with psychedelic flourishes. Simple exchanges are afforded camera trickery, lighting effects, or bizarre non-sequiturs in the form of gags, be it knife dicks and vintage pornography, tigers roaring against matte backdrops, guitar-shaped axes, cartoon visions of witchy lovers and alien planets—this movie literally has it all. Just when you find yourself comfortable with the style, thinking you understand the flow of the camerawork or effects you might expect to see, you are immediately displaced and shown a Dwight Yoakam lookalike for no other reason to be shown a Dwight Yoakam lookalike. For those expecting a straightforward throwback into camp and nostalgia, you will be disappointed. For those not wanting to experiment with the harder drugs, you may find it sufferable trip. Panos Cosmatos works to keep the nightmare stirring, doing everything at his disposal to shock and surprise and make you question if what you’re watching is even a movie, or just some rock album played too loudly. Loud enough to drive fry some all-important nerves tethering your senses to reality.
Speaking of loud rock, I would be remiss to fail to mention the stellar work of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Heavy synth, haunting horns, glitzy guitar melodies and dour drumbeats. It’s all a far cry from his previous work, and very much an integral part of shaping the mood of the film. Cosmatos had stated he found a kindred spirit in the Icelandic composer, lovers of horror and heavy metal, and hoped to have started a collaboration. Sad to say this movie is both the alpha and omega of that partnership.
A theater-going experience is, without question, demanded for this movie. Cell phones and quiet TV speakers will do you no favors here. Settle in for the slow, fevered dream of the first hour, get your buzz going in the second hour with Red and his occasional mugging for the camera, and leave a little bit more warped than you were expecting even from an acid trip. And, like any acid trip, by the film’s end, after the endless bloodletting and the rage has been expulsed, the landscape has changed. Red’s world has changed. Maybe, one can hope, genre expectations have changed as well.
Mandy is in theaters now.
You can check out the trailer here.