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Equal parts psychotropic horror and grindhouse revenge thriller, Mandy is what you might get if David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky teamed up to remake Death Wish (1974) in the style of a Giallo. The second feature from director and co-writer Panos Cosmatos, after the interesting, but not entirely convincing Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), Mandy is a psychedelic experience in pretty much every way, and as midnight-y as a midnight B-movie could possibly be. And although it would be impossible to recommend to everyone, there is an undeniable brilliance here. An insane brilliance. But a brilliance none-the-less. Although it could (somewhat legitimately) be accused of too much style and not enough substance, Cosmatos pitch-perfectly mixes an expressionist aesthetic with horror tropes, a generic revenge narrative, and comedy beats. But let's face it, the reason most people will see the film is for Nicolas Cage, and in that sense, Mandy joins the ranks of films such as Vampire's Kiss (1988), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009), and Mom and Dad (2017) in giving Cage an organic, narratively justified reason to go full-Cage, digging deep into his reservoir of utter insanity. And that's never a bad thing.
Set in "1983 A.D.", the film tells the story of Red Miller (Cage), and his girlfriend, aspiring fantasy artist Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who live a simple secluded life in the Shadow Mountains, in a cabin on the banks of Crystal Lake. Hugely supportive of one another, it's hinted that Red may have been an alcoholic and/or drug addict in his youth, whilst Mandy has a significant facial scar, possibly the result of a troubled childhood, which she alludes to from time to time. All is calm in their life until Mandy is spotted by the Children of the New Dawn, a religious cult led by failed folk singer Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Taken with Mandy's beauty, Sand tells his right-hand-man, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), that he wants Mandy, saying "you know what to do." Using the "Horn of Abraxas", Swan summons the Black Skulls, a trio of demonic bikers addicted to a highly potent form of LSD, and along with the Skulls, the Children invade Red and Mandy's cabin, tying Red up in barbed wire outside, and leaving him for dead. Meanwhile, two female Children, Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré) and Sister Lucy (Line Pillet), drug Mandy with LSD and venom from a giant wasp, before presenting her to Sand. Singing his own song, "Amulet of the Weeping Maze", Sand attempts to seduce Mandy, but things quickly go awry when he proves unable to get an erection. Unbeknownst to the Children, however, Red has survived and set out pursuit of both the cult and the Skulls.
One of the things that will jump out at you as you watch Mandy is that Cosmatos packs the narrative with an extraordinary amount of cultural references, some oblique, others more obvious. Prior to hearing any dialogue, there is an audio extract of President Ronald Reagan speaking about how the vast majority of Americans are disgusted by porn. Mandy's art is not dissimilar to the work of Roger Dean, whilst the film's animated sections (of which there are several) recall the kind of material found in Heavy Metal. Indeed, the general aesthetic of the film is equal parts Bat Out of Hell and Iron Maiden. The Children of the New Dawn cult is obviously inspired by the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ and the Manson Family, with Sand himself part Jim Jones, part Charles Manson, and part Dan Fogelberg. The home invasion scene bears more than a passing resemblance to similar such scenes in The Last House on the Left (1972) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), whilst the revenge narrative has something of the original Mad Max (1979) about it. The film also recalls Valhalla Rising (2009) in places. Sand's "Amulet of the Weeping Maze" is inspired by the work of The Carpenters (which he admits himself). Red is seen wearing a Mötley Crüe t-shirt, and tells an awesome Erik Estrada/CHiPs (1977) joke. During a discussion about which planet is their favourite, Mandy selects Jupiter, but Red argues for Galactus. The Black Skulls are obviously inspired by the Cenobites from Hellraiser (1987). The Children's A-frame chapel resembles the church in There Will Be Blood (2007). This is as culturally-literate a film as you're likely to see all year, and as much as the narrative exists in a kind of shattered-mirror version of reality, these references do help ground it, even if many of them are purposely anachronistic.
Mandy gets off to a cracking start by using the old Universal logo, complete with scratches and dirt on the celluloid. It follows that up with the most pseudo-John Carpenter 80s music imaginable, composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, in one of his last compositions prior to his untimely death, with guitar chords played by Stephen O'Malley of Sunn 0))). To give you an idea of the type of music featured throughout the film, there's an early shot moving across the forest scored to King Crimson's "Starless". Indeed, the score is almost another character entirely, and the film simply wouldn't work half as well if the music wasn't as good.
Aside from the music, the most immediately attention-grabbing aspect of the film is the use of colour, with director of photography Benjamin Loeb's compositions bathed in deep purples, reds, indigos, yellows, greens, and oranges, with the occasional blue (primarily associated with Mandy herself). Often the colours are non-diegetic and unexplained (for example the Horn of Abraxas always appears in green light, irrespective of location). The cinematography also employs a plethora of subjective techniques, such as double lens flares, what can only be described psychedelic lighting, animation, slow-motion fades and dissolves, telephoto shots, and a hell of a lot of dry ice.
Very much a film of two halves, if the first brings us the gates to hell, the second pushes us in and slams the gates shut behind us. The first half runs up until just prior to the beginning of Red's revenge, whilst the second depicts that revenge. The first half focuses primarily on Mandy, with Red very much a supporting character, whilst the second, obviously, focuses on him. However, it's not just in terms of narrative content in which the two halves differ, they are also aesthetically different, particularly the editing rhythms. The first is languid and dream-like, almost graceful, whilst the second is like something out of Dante Alighieri or William Blake, filtered through H.R. Giger on acid. The two halves are divided by an extraordinary single-shot 45-second scene of Red (wearing only underpants and a t-shirt) pouring vodka all over his wounds, drinking what's left, and screaming. It's a scene of extraordinarily raw emotion that works brilliantly, partly because scenes like it are so rare. You simply don't often see a male protagonist this vulnerable. At the screening I attended, there was quite a bit of laughter during the scene, which I thought was unfair, until a colleague hypothesised it may have been nervous laughter. This is Mandy's "suit up" scene, and here is Cage crying like a starving baby. It's a brave choice by both actor and director, and it works perfectly both as a stand-alone scene and as a transition from the first to the second half of the film. Indeed, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that one could read Mandy, at least in part, as a meditation on the destructive nature of profound grief, and if so, that interpretation begins right here. Yes, there is more than a hint of an archetypal dualistic cosmology underpinning Red's revenge, particularly Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, but so too is it a deeply personalised quest.
Especially in the second half of the film (and particularly in the last few minutes), Cosmatos strives to place us in Red's head, which has the effect of elevating the carnage beyond that of your standard ultra-violent revenge movie. As Red's mission progresses, and he becomes more and more unhinged, so too does the film become less and less interested in what we would refer to as reality, introducing such aspects as cannibalism, a bow named "The Reaper" and arrows which "cut through bone like a fat kid through cake", a chemist who can smell where the Black Skulls are, a stoned tiger, eels, a cigarette being lit via a flaming body part, choking via knife, (several) decapitations, a chainsaw duel, a church in the forest with secret underground passages, a skull crushing, hallucinations, even a cosmic event.
There are some problems, however. For starters, it's kind of disappointing when you realise that for all its technical prowess and fascinating aesthetic gymnastics, when it comes down to it, Mandy is just a revenge flick, and at just over two hours, it tends to drag a little in places. The screenplay can also be too on the nose at tunes. For example, early in the film, Mandy tells a story about her father attempting to force her to kill a baby starling that proves tonally prophetic in the way only stories in films ever are. Additionally, the script (by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn) doesn't give Red a huge amount of depth.
Is there an element of the emperor's new clothes about the entire endeavour? Yes, to a certain extent there is. And, yes, most of the best bits are in the trailer (or at least are spoiled by the trailer - the chainsaw duel would have been much funnier if I hadn't known it was coming). And yes, it's all kind of pointless. However, love it or loathe it, there's no denying it's brilliantly assembled. As an audio-visual experience, it's unlike anything I've seen in a long time, and it's almost certainly destined for cult status.
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