I don’t know if I’m watching Mandy at the best of all possible times or the worst. I’m watching it while surrounded by a toxic cloud of smoke that makes it unsafe to go outside, in the largest wildfire season Oregon has faced in my lifetime or my parents’ lifetime, while under a Level 1 evacuation warning. On the one hand, I’m watching the movie with an ambient atmosphere that exudes dread going in. On the other hand, maybe that’s what’s helping me get the most out of it.
Mandy is from director Panos Cosmatos, whose earlier film Beyond the Black Rainbow I’ve previously reviewed. Mandy is larger in scope than the earlier work, in multiple senses, but definitely carries over some common traits.
The movie follows Nicholas Cage as Red, a logger out in rural Somewhere in the ’80s (location isn’t particularly important – though it’s a lot like some of the places in Oregon that are on fire right now). He has a nice quiet life with his partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). They’re happy together, and have both had some varying degrees of trauma in their backgrounds – Mandy gets into some of hers, Red less so.
This all comes to a crashing halt after Charles Manson Wanna-Be Jeremiah Sand (played by Linus Roache, who is apparently in an actual cult) sees Mandy by the side of the road, decides he wants her, and has his followers have their group of Satanic Demon Bikers take her for him, after tying Red up with barbed wire. After Mandy is not impressed by Sand’s pathetic music, messianic rhetoric, and flaccid genitals, Sand’s cult burns Mandy alive, and leaves Red for dead. Red escapes, and the next morning goes on a roaring rampage of revenge.
Now, this plot synopsis would fit a lot of 1970s exploitation films. However, what makes this work here is Cosmatos’ direction, Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, and Cage’s performance. Cosmatos’ direction, along with the pacing of the film is very deliberately done to evoke a late ’70s-early ’80s horror aesthetic – one which fits with stuff like Cronenberg’s independent horror films like The Brood.
Additionally, Mandy, like Beyond the Black Rainbow, slips odd little bits of the fantastic into the film providing an odd layer of the fantastic and weird underneath our reality – strange magically imbued weapons (like The Devil’s Teardrop in Beyond The Black Rainbow, and a couple similar weapons here), and a layer of weird unreality that can be accessed through hallucinogenic drugs (particularly LSD) – with a definite sense that this is a Bad Place to go (continuing another theme from Beyond the Black Rainbow – LSD is bad).
This is all heightened by the visuals – the use of color to create senses of heightened unreality. There isn’t the same level of engineered futurism like there was with Beyond the Black Rainbow – the locations are much more naturalistic and grounded – a house in the woods, a roadside hotel, a trailer, a church built in a gravel quarry. That leads Cosmatos and Loeb to that brings the lighting and use of color much more to the fore of the film to provoke that sense of heightened unreality, the intrusions of the real into the realm of the real.
On top of all of this, there’s Jóhannsson’s score, which uses a lot of ambient music to provoke a what would already be a profound sense of dread, if I wasn’t living on the edge of a wildfire zone at the time I watched the movie. I enjoyed his score in Blade Runner 2049, and it also works incredibly well here – which makes the fact that this is his last score the more of a bummer. The music does a great job of evoking Howard Shore’s music with Cronenberg, and I would have loved to have seen Jóhannsson have a similar career.
Finally, there’s Nicholas Cage. This, combined with Into the Spiderverse, along with the buzz coming out of Color Out Of Space feels like Cage has gotten his groove back, after years of being in the woods in low-budget, done to pay the IRS hack films. There’s a degree of excitement in this performance, where I get the feeling that while certainly this isn’t a big budget film, it’s one where Cage took on this role because he was excited about what he got to do (which, since Cage has mentioned he really liked Black Rainbow, makes sense).
Cosmatos still feels like an acquired taste, in terms of his directorial work, and considering this is only his second film, I will admit that it’s hard to tell what that taste is. Both films have an aura of psychedelia, and a sense of indictment of that movement psychedelic movement – but they’re criticisms that feel like they’re born out of a sense of sincerity – instead of being an overly straight-laced moral panic work. They’re both films who have a dangerous overbearing figure with something of a god complex in a central role in the film. They’re both works of psychological horror, with some very distinct and unique visual language and presentation between the two.
However, they’re also both incredibly different. Mandy is more faster paced, less claustrophobic, more graphically violent, and arguably more sexual. It puts me in a position where I’m incredibly interested to see what Cosmatos’s next film is going to be, whenever he makes it.
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