Directed by Panos Cosmatos.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Bill Duke, Ned Dennehy, Clément Baronnet, Line Pillet, Olwen Fouéré, and Richard Brake.
Mandy is set in the primal wilderness of 1983 where Red Miller, a broken and haunted man hunts an unhinged religious sect who slaughtered the love of his life.
If there isn’t a nuttier film than Mandy released this year – the sophomore effort from Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) – that’d be totally understandable. Though much of the online fandom surrounding star Nicolas Cage is steeped in de rigeur irony, this high-style, low-brow revenge romp is a playfully bonkers reminder of how intensely creative he can be under the right circumstances.
Much like Cosmatos’ prior effort, this is an aggressive slow-burn that’s in no hurry to unspool its acid-tinged narrative. Mandy takes place in the rural California of the early 1980s, as Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Mandy Bloom’s (Andrea Riseborough) idyllic life is upended by a gang of drug-crazed, supernatural cultists. His life in tatters, Red seeks gnarly revenge by any means necessary, and the means sure are gnarly.
More than anything, this film is an exercise in pervasive tone and atmosphere; from first minute to last, the movie’s grimy air is almost suffocatingly rich, with even the pre-attack sequences taking on an offputtingly sinister tenor. Cosmatos’ methodical approach makes frequent use of long-take dialogues, clearly intended to hypnotise the viewer with neon lighting, groovy synths and, yes, feverish close-ups of Cage himself.
It’s worth mentioning that the star of the show actually spends lengthy portions of the movie’s first act off-screen, in what smacks vaguely of a cost-cutting measure in a film that surely can’t have had much money to spare. Though Riseborough and the movie’s grotesque cabal of assailants certainly pass the time nicely, Mandy truly hits its stride in act two as the instigating incident takes place and Cage takes the centre-stage.
It’d be criminal to spoil many of the delirious and increasingly eyebrow-raising events that follow, but be clear – if you can’t get onboard with Nicolas Cage lighting a cigarette from a burning man’s decapitated, still-aflame head, this is most certainly not the movie for you.
This is also a film where Cage wields a Giant Fucking Axe – which he smelts himself, of course – among other barbaric blood-letting implements, allowing the actor to harness the madcap energy he’s too often left to disperse in unworthy straight-to-video genre films.
The supporting cast deserves recognition, also; Riseborough brings an alternately sympathetic and creepily angelic quality to the film, while Linus Roache – best known for playing Bruce Wayne’s father in Batman Begins – is virtually unrecognisable here as the demented cult leader antagonist.
Surely the most crowd-pleasing bit-part, though, is that of action cinema legend Bill Duke, who scarcely seems to have aged in the three decades since Predator and Commando, showing up for a single scene to impart some wisdom to Red and, naturally, gift him a weapon.
It’d be incredibly easy for the slower “art-house” elements to clash horribly with the shameless divergence into B-movie shlock, but again, Cosmatos’ unwavering handle on tone ensures the film never forgets the horror at the core of its story. A haunting mid-film sequence in which Cage mourns the ashy remains of his former home might present one of the year’s most unforgettably grim visuals, while giving Cage the platform for one of his finest acting showcases in years.
Even then, Mandy doesn’t dare become self-consciously morbid, and there are hilarious moments generously spiced throughout, especially in the gonzo, grindhouse-homaging third act, where Cage indeed goes full Cage. Oddly though, an earlier sequence seems to nod towards the movie harbouring a blatantly satirical political agenda r.e. Reagan-era politics – in line with the baby boomer critiques laced within the director’s first film – yet this aspect of the movie ends up surprisingly subdued, largely confined to a single radio broadcast.
In terms of pure aesthetics, the film’s deference towards neon lighting and synths could so easily feel hoary and cynical, considering how they’re often wielded by filmmakers as a crutch for their less-refined dramatic instincts.
Thankfully Cosmatos’ uniquely creepy approach makes the flourishes feel wholly earned and, moreover, uniquely deployed. The stunning score by the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson is sure to become a cult fave, to say nothing of Benjamin Loeb’s rich cinematography, Brett W. Bachman’s patient, tack-sharp editing, some extremely unnerving optical effects, a couple of brief forays into animation and, of course, lashings of goopy gore.
The only real issue with Mandy is that it’s a little on the long side for the experience it’s offering; some will find the opening 40-or-so minutes obnoxiously plodding, and Cage’s absence for much of it does it no favours. But if you’re willing to sit back and soak in the fever dream in its every essence, there’s a calm confidence to Cosmatos’ vision, and his faith in the audience to remain invested is really quite refreshing.
Though its deliberate pace might deter some Nicolas Cage devotees, this face-melting genre-bender is a persuasive argument for cinema as pure atmosphere.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.