‘Mandy’ Review: Ragin’ Cagin

(heavy metal infused synthesizer intensifies)

“A psychotic drowns where the mystic swims. You’re drowning. I’m swimming.”

It’s easy to make fun of Nicolas Cage these days for quite a few reasons: His over the top approach to how he acts, all the B-movie scholock he stars in usually, his financial issues, his facial expressions. But underneath all of that eccentricity is a genuinely talented actor who never sleep walks in anything he’s in, regardless of quality. And Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, a psychedelic revenge thriller steeped in Heavy Metal aesthetics and blood red color palettes, feels almost completely tailor-made to the Cage and his special brand of skills as an actor. This doesn’t even feel like a film that comes from our mundane and normal dimension; This is something that feels birthed from the fever dreams of someone whacked out on every drug and hallucinogen known to man, showing us great beauty while also displaying its extreme horrors.

It is a singular film, made with little to no compromise and will present you its world however it feels to. It doesn’t care if you don’t like where the narrative is going or how fast it takes to get where it’s going; You watch the movie and you’ll go with its flow, whether you like it or not. For a film with such a straightforward story, it feels like there’s a lot going on under the surface, but not in what you’d expect. Despite all of its hyper violence and batclap insanity, this is a surprisingly melancholic tale of broken lovers and trying to find peace in a world where monsters destroy it for no good reason. But just because they bite doesn’t mean you can’t bite back.

Red Miller (Cage) and Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) live a peaceful existence in The Shadow Mountains during the 80’s. He’s a lumberjack while she’s an artist who frequently reads fantasy literature and draws surreal drawings you’d see on the sides of panel vans for a living. They’re both subtly implied to have emotional issues of their own (Red appears to have been a veteran of some kind of military combat–probably Vietnam–and has frequent nightmares while Mandy sports a rather noticeable scar on her face and can recall some rather traumatized details of her childhood in vivid detail). But they both genuinely love each other. We even get a fun dinner scene of them watching Nightbeast on the TV and eating sausages together!

However, their tranquil lifestyle is destroyed beyond repair when a mad cultist by the name of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and his merry posse of fanatics try to recruit Mandy as one of their own. She stubbornly refuseseven under the influence of narcotics that seem to come from an alien-like dimensionand is horribly punished as a result. Leaving him no other choice, Red embarks on a quest to hunt down the cultists who destroyed their lives by any means necessary.

Both halves of the film feel like two different films. The first half functions as a ultra surreal, extremely slow burn horror that really lets you soak in the atmosphere and off kilter vibe the film is going for. As a result, however, it can also lead to the audience not gelling with the film’s very deliberate pace. This is the kind of movie that can very easily lose its audience due to the way it’s paced. Characters tend to ramble (albeit with a point or pivotal details), long takes are frequent, moments where the movie just wants you to gawk at its visual sensibilities – This can all get grating for those not gelling with its initial set up. If you find yourself either dozing off or looking at your watch (or pulling up the timestamp on your DVD/Blu-Ray/Digital copy/whatever), I empathize. But then the second half rolls around.

Said second turns the film from slow-burn to full on throttling insanity, excessively gory action movie. Red gets a crossbow from a friend of his (Bill Duke in a scene stealing bit) and crafts a pure metal axe with only a pair of sunglasses as protection from the molten hot elements of crafting. He shoots, slices, chops, imaples, crushes and decapitates his way through the evil that destroyed their lives and to say it’s satisfying is understating it to say the least. Moments of action and violence are filmed primarily in dark areas and/or red soaked vistas but is also coherent in what’s happening on screen This is also partially where the film’s wacko sense of humor comes into play. The ever famous “YOU RIPPED MY SHIRT” moment when Cage yells at one of his opponents during a duel has now reached a degree of meme status, unsurprisingly. Then of course there’s the chainsaw vs chainsaw fight because of course there’s a chainsaw fight in this sort of movie. Did I also mention that Cage takes a dab of demonic acid at one bit during this other half? Because of course he does.

Yet underneath all of this stylistic madness and gif ready reaction shots, there’s a surprising amount of sadness to the film. Both Red and Mandy are extremely haunted individuals and despite my issues with the first half’s pacing, the film truly does get you to care about them. Even after Mandy herself leaves the film, her presence looms over the film like an all encompassing shadow over the the film’s metal universe. Most revenge films treat those who need to be avenged as just a plot device than actual characters but this film has a surprising amount of dignity in this regard. Even of the film’s final moments is that of Red reflecting on a happier time with her than in the typically ballistic visuals the film has on display. Given that director and co-writer Panos Cosmatos said he wrote this as a way to vent his emotions over the death of his parents, like many things in this movie, really isn’t that surprising.

Of course, none of this wouldn’t matter if the cast wasn’t game for the material and luckily, they are. As fun as it is to see Nicholas Cage do his typical freakouts, his performance in this is far more nuanced than the trailers and marketing materials would lead you to believe. Yes, he screams and hollers but the grief he feels in the film feels genuinely real and it gives the film just enough grounding in its warped reality to get you invested. Meanwhile, Andrea Riseborough shines and breathes tremendous life into the titular character. Her thousand yard stare and quiet speech patterns really leave an a major impression on the viewer, especially in one scene where cult leader Jeremiah Sand tries to sway her to his side, only for her to begin hysterically and obnoxiously laughing at his massive ego. To say this scene is both cathartic and terrifying does not do it justice. Speaking of Sand, Linus Roache proves to be a wonderfully despicable villain, a failed musician turned cult leader with a massive ego, loads of self righteousness, raging misogyny and rampant narcissism. He is at once pathetic but intimidating and props to Roache pulling off both aspects of this character quite well. We also get some brief but very welcome appearances from character actors like Bill Duke and Richard Brake as one of Red’s friends and a drug dealer who somewhat unwittingly sets the film’s story in motion.

As one could tell, Mandy is something of a technical marvel. This may be one of the first few full length features DP Benjamin Loeb has shot but he shoots this thing like a guy who’s been doing this for years. The film’s cinematography always feels tightly constructed and designed within an inch of its life for the viewer to be sucked into its splendor from frame one. Though a digital production, there’s a wonderfully film grain-like look to it that gives the movie real texture, to the point that some films I’ve seen shot on actual film can’t achieve. Meanwhile, the late and great composer Johann Johannsson left this world with what will undoubtedly be one of his best works with the film’s score, a truly unholy but hypnotic score that combines a whole lotta synth with heavy metal to create a mood that is undeniably strong. If you need any further evidence that the world of film scoring won’t be as interesting any more without him (especially with film scores like Sicario and Arrival on his belt), this film is further evidence.

Mandy is not for everyone. Its slow pace, how straight it plays itself to the point of unintentional comedy and hyper violence will turn off some viewers, maybe even outright have them curse and shout over what they’re watching. But for those willing to get with the film’s almost demonic, acid trip infused groove, the rewards will be massive. My first viewing, I really dug it but my second truly unlocked a surprising amount of layers I didn’t anticipate.

Sometimes sad, sometimes funny and sometimes completely terrifying, Panos Cosmatos has crafted what is, at the very least, one of the most distinct films of the year. Sure, it won’t make a billion dollars like the latest Avengers sequel but small films like this have their own successes and sometimes, for a film as niche and weird as this, that’s okay. It’s already earned a deeply faithful fanbase and rapidly became a Midnight Movie for the millennial generation. That’s a major victory right there and I’ll be damned to say I am happy for this strange film coming into being.

I anticipate whatever Cosmatos has next up his sleeve, bonus points if Riseborough and Cage return.