With a trailer that promised surreal, neon-lit landscapes as a backdrop to an unhinged spree of violent revenge, I marked Mandy as the one movie I needed to experience no matter what this year. I had seen Beyond the Black Rainbow almost a decade ago, so I understood director Panos Cosmatos’ penchant for beautiful, cosmic framing and haunting performances. I knew Mandy would be his uncompromising vision. I knew it would at least strike out as a cult classic since Nicolas Cage was going to have a chainsaw fight at some point. I came into this movie with the highest of expectations, expectations I knew full well it could never live up to.
And it didn’t. It exceeded every single one of them.
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Release Date: September 14, 2018
Mandy is a work of pure ambition. Imperceptibly stitched in the middle, it’s both a literary slow burn of The Shining-style dread and an outrageous celebration of midnight movie extremes like Drive Angry. Infusing patience and grace into its pacing, Cosmatos balances this tonal weight and sets Mandy beyond classification within the myriad sub-genres of horror. There may be other films that are similar to pieces of Mandy — to chunks of Mandy — but no film exists that is like Mandy.
Red (Nicolas Cage) is a logger living with his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in the remote wilderness. The year is 1983. Under the blood moon, Mandy catches the eye of the wrong man, Jerimiah (Linus Roache), leader of the Children of the New Dawn cult. He senses an unbreakable connection to her and decides he’ll have her at any cost.
This sets in motion a bullet train of terror, despair, and vengeance and marks a new pinnacle for revenge thrillers. Better than Oldboy, better than I Saw the Devil, Mandy hammers themes of self-destruction and the perversion of what’s lost in order to avenge it without words, without slowing down or leaning on cliches. There are no speeches on how revenge never brings peace or how Jeremiah and Red are more alike than they think. Cosmatos knows you’ve heard those stories before and doesn’t waste your time rehashing the same tired lines. The story is confident, lean, and agile.
Any text, themes, or messages are all visual. The use of weapons and drugs, the blood splattered across Cage’s face as he progresses from anguish to manic insanity are all you need to understand the urgency of what’s happening. Long-winded dialogs have no place when every shot is littered with surreal textures and chaotic intensity.
So much nightmare beauty glows through the film. When Mandy walks under the blood moon and Jeremiah’s van passes, the screen is doused in red. When she’s kidnapped from her bedroom, pulsing blue light stutters over Hellraiser-esque creatures of leather and spikes. When she’s drugged and taken to Jeremiah, swirls of red with blue afterimages streak the screen in otherworldly violet pools.
This is without mentioning the performances, all of which are deft creations of lived-in characters. Roache can twist from cruelty to cowardice, from menace to helplessness with adjustments in inflection that never feel forced or false. Everyone involved grounds Costmatos’ vision and gives it a life and history that the script only hints toward.
The soundtrack swells, elevating this twisted blend of fantasy and reality. In the final score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, music pulses with 80’s synth, antique organs, and blasts of doom metal. The musical cues can ratchet moments to incredible heights. When a cultist reveals a chainsaw the length of a man’s arm and pulls it to roaring life, a guitar strike punctuates the moment with electric excitement.
Mandy is a rare revenge flick in that its violent retribution, though showcased in the trailer, isn’t where the film lives and dies. It builds to a breathless and desperate climax that concludes before Red touches his first weapon. The world mires you so deeply in its ethereal strangeness that you forget that bloody retribution is on its way. When it arrives, though, it plows through on an unbelievable second wind that’s at once brutal, absurd, and haunting.
It’s also just plain cool. Through half of the movie, Red wears a very 80’s baseball T of a tiger’s head looking like something out of Hotline Miami. He has a crossbow called The Reaper, a beautiful combination of an ax and a spear with a curved blade in its center called The Beast, along with the previously mentioned chainsaw, of course. Every time he ruins or loses one sweet-ass ride another is waiting for him just a few feet away. And yet these moments never ring as false or tone deaf. They’re the exact right discordant emotional beats at the exact right moments that blend the many tones of Mandy together.
Exuding an effortless confidence, Mandy holds no hands and takes no prisoners. At once haunting and exhilarating, absurd and all too human, it settles on no single tone and instead blares forward, doom metal blasting, straight through every layer of hell.
You should definitely ride along.