The first question I had walking out of Mandy at the SIFF Cinema Uptown was “What does this remind me of… if anything?” I still ponder this because Mandy is so weird the only way I can make sense of it is to try to recognize any similarities it has with other weird films. The best I could come up with is a kinship with the 1981 adult animated cult classic Heavy Metal. Both films contain a great deal of fantasy and sci-fi imagery, explicit violence, and a heavy metal soundtrack.Yet Mandy feels weirder. Yes, I’m saying a film about flying cars and zombie pilots is less weird than the latest Nic Cage movie.
With a razor-thin plot, because anything more complicated would make the film indecipherable, Mandy is a typical revenge film. Nicolas Cage plays Red—though it feels like he’s just playing Nicolas Cage—a lumberjack living in the Shadow Mountains with the love of his life Mandy played by Andrea Riseborough. They share the simple pleasures in life like telling each other classic jokes like this one:
Red: Knock, knock
Mandy: Who’s there?
Red: Erik Estrada
Mandy: Erik Estrada who?
Red: Erik Estrada from CHIPS.
I should also note the film is set in 1983, which might explain the Erik Estrada name drop. Director Panos Cosmatos previous film Beyond the Black Rainbow was also set in 1983. What is it about that year? According to Cosmatos in an
interview with Birth.Movies.Death.com:
“Both of these movies exist in a sort of ‘mythical’ realm, and that’s what 1983 represents: the realm of imagination where, when I was a kid, I would look at VHS tapes of horror movies and pulp novels. I’d read the backs of them and look at their cover art, imagining what they actually looked like based on those paintings and descriptions, because I wasn’t allowed to rent them. But that’s what 1983 truly is for me: this intangible realm of memory and imagination.”
Knowing Cosmatos’ mindset helps put Mandy into perspective. The film reflects a nostalgia for a time that never existed. A dreamlike take on themes and ideas prevalent in the grind and art house movies of the ‘70s and ’80s with the intent to purge an emotion. Cosmatos also said in the interview I linked to that after his father, director George P. Cosmatos died, that Beyond the Black Rainbow was an “inhale” for coping with his death and Mandy was an “exhale”. It makes sense. What’s more cathartic than watching Nicolas Cage chop of a mutant biker man’s head with a He-Man weapon?
Before we talk about Nic Cage and his blood-soaked rage-a-thon let’s talk about his supporting players. Andrea Riseborough (Birdman, Oblivion) is hypnotic as the film’s title character. Just looking at her scarred faced and wide-eyed stare you get a feeling that she’s experienced a life not without hardship. One of the film’s best scenes is when she tells Red a chilling story about her father teaching children to kill starlings. We invest a lot emotionally in the character, making it even harder when she comes into contact with the film’s antagonist.
Linus Roache, who you might recognize as Batman’s dad from Batman Begins, plays Jeremiah Sand the leader of a violent hippie cult Children of the New Dawn. A wannabe folk star with a Messiah complex, Jeremiah is one of the most detestable villains I’ve seen in a while. What he does to Mandy after he realizes she wants no part of him is devastating. Fortunately, when we lose this great character another one steps into the spotlight…
Of course, I’m talking about Nic fuckin’ Cage. There were parts of Mandy where I had no idea if Cage was following a script or completely off book. In theory, this shouldn’t work but in an LSD nightmare like Mandy, it works almost too well. Cage fights hippies with chainsaws and hits guys into bottomless pits while shouting things like “You vicious snowflake!” It almost seems like Cage has embraced his meme-like status as one of the most over-the-top actors working today and decided to run with it. It’s everything you could want from him and a joy to see on the big screen, as opposed to most of the straight-to-DVD garbage Cage does these days.
The only thing keeping Mandy from cult midnight movie status is overindulgence. The transitions and lighting effects provide for a unique experience but also undercut the story. Often we are given a serious moment between characters only to have an assault of photographic flourishes interrupting the scene. There are far too many dream sequences and far too many unnecessary animation breaks. Pacing is not this film’s friend.
I can think of a lot of problems with Mandy. Structural issues, story issues, and yet I can’t help but admire this film. It attempts something and even though it doesn’t always succeed when it does it’s an unparalleled cinematic experience. Alien backdrops, swirling images dripping with blood to a pulsating metal score from the recently deceased Jóhann Jóhannsson (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), It’s got everything. Mandy seeps into your brain and takes you places. My only question is “Where the hell does Panos Cosmatos go from here?” I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s going to be a helluva ride.