“This is a film about the death of my parents —and also a lot of fun” – Panos Cosmatos.
Only a cinematic wizard like Cosmatos could have conjured this nightmarish tale of love, loss, revenge, and rock & roll. Whether the hazy pink of a bygone psychedelic era consumes the screen or we’re treated to a seemingly out-of-place Mac n’ Cheese commercial featuring a goblin terrorizing children by oozing the cheesy delight onto them, a sense of celebration underlies the entirety of the feature. Mandy works as an exhibition for the festivity of madness by abusing the brilliant insanity of its main actor, Nicolas Cage, who delivers a tour-de-force performance by embracing and embodying every element of Cosmatos and Stewart-Ahn’s script. It’s this intense level of commitment on behalf of Cage and the rest of the actors that elevates lines like “these arrows cut through cake like a fat kid eats cake” beyond B-movie status by elevating the material as a whole from being a simple revenge tale and transforming the film into a reflection on the nasty tethering between grief and honor, as well as an assault on the shallow nature of religious organizations that simply act as veils for cults.
We’re propelled into Cosmatos’s deranged vision of 80’s rural U.S. by the bizarre epigraph “When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock and roll me when I’m dead” and the pulsating beat of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s accompanying synth score. Despite the calm landscape shots of a sea of trees and accompanying melody of the opening credits, Cosmatos has already set-up a wild-ride to come from the get-go. Interestingly enough, Cosmatos shows an incredible sense of restrain by focusing the bulk of the movie on the relationship between Red (Cage) and Mandy (Riseborough) prior to unleashing the expected madness towards the latter half of the film. Though slow, without the initial acts the film would lose all sense of emotional weight and render the last act meaningless altogether. Even though on second-viewing the set-up becomes a nuisance by pushing back the itching madness the last act withholds, the first acts of Mandy are entirely necessary in order to legitimize the film’s purpose by cementing the leading relationship’s love for one another and satirizing the absurdity of Jeremiah Sand’s (Roache) cult.
With regards to the essence of evil this film picks as its villains, Cosmatos does an incredible job highlighting the abstract malignity of each villainous facet Red has to face. Whether it’s the otherworldly LSD-possessed bikers that look like Lord Humongus’s personal death metal band or the scheming and unruly Jeremiah Sand leading the cult, Cosmatos makes sure to singularize the characteristics and plight of each evil creature, providing Mandy with a stellar collection of faces and designs that reflect Cosmatos’s deranged sensibilities. Doing so, he breathes life into the world of Mandy, making each decapitation all the more gory and Red’s quest all the more poignant. As the film approaches its insane finale and Red falls deeper and deeper into his maddening desire to avenge his wife, Cosmatos makes sure to follow suit with the story and the camera, making each and every scene progressively more abstract and bathing each shot with a plethora of neon hues that evoke the haziness of a transcendent LSD-trip that would make Refn envious. Despite what may appear to be a haze-inducing product, Cosmatos’s control over his film is on full display, as he manages to manipulate sight, sound, and feel to elicit a very particular emotion caught somewhere in between comedy, pity, and awe.
Moments like Nicolas Cage’s Red alternating between chugging a bottle of vodka and screaming over the death of his wife in a bathroom are emblematic of Cosmatos’s manipulation of his audience’s reaction, inducing laughter, pity, and awe from such a rather simple scene. It’s Cosmatos’s ability to conflate sounds, emotions, and pictures that make Mandy such an enthralling film, as each and every scene captivates viewers by assaulting them with a plethora of symbols and emotions that are meant to be interpreted. It’s decisions like these that showcase Cosmatos’s skill as a director who knows how to elicit thoughtful reflections and instigate conversation.
Sidelining Cosmatos’s skill as a director, the reality is, most people who seek out Mandy are probably doing so to witness Nicolas Cage go berserk and murder demon bikers. Well, I can attest that you will not be disappointed, but that your patience will be tested if that’s all you wanted to see. As I stated earlier, Mandy transcends the trappings of a simple revenge tale by laboriously working on building up the relationship between Red and Mandy prior to allowing Red to unleash hell. Then again, Red unleashes hell, and he does so in the most amazing way possible. The killing-sequences Cosmatos decides to direct are why this film has to be watched with an audience, as each stab and chainsaw-clash provokes hollering and claps from the audience. I cannot stress enough there is nothing quite like seeing Nicolas Cage fight a sex-crazed paunchy demon biker, do a line of coke, and then try corrupted-LSD all within the span of minutes. Mandy is a vessel for Nicolas Cage’s wild heart to be experienced by the audience, and it’s madness is beautiful.
Mandy didn’t live up to my expectations because there is no way I could have expected to experience what Mandy had in store for me. It’s a film that requires the energy of an audience because it’ll exhaust the energy of individuals by assaulting them with a barrage of images and emotions they couldn’t possibly prepare to experience. Exploring themes of madness, love, and suffering, Mandy maintains a perspective of beauty throughout its exploration of the entrancing colors of hell.