The demon-summoning, LED laser-lens flares, medieval weaponry-fetishizing, churning synth and axe rhythms, and the overall simmer of curdling darkness are collective flickers of a recurrent, suffocatingly inescapable nightmare, one fueled by loss – Cosmatos, in Rue Morgue magazine #184, notes the death of his parents as an influence on the writing of Rainbow and Mandy – and a miasma of cinematic reference points, everything from Mad Max to The Crow, from Friday the 13th to Excalibur, from Evil Dead to Apocalypse Now. The film might also make for an interesting, exhausting triple bill – from both a stylistic and thematic vantage – with Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s John Wick and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising.
* * *
Watching Panos Cosmatos’ new Mandy is like burrowing through the candy-colored landscape of human viscera – all tissue and sinewy shreds of blood, flesh, and bone – to land in the pit of fire and ash at the soul of man. Or maybe the soul of evil itself. I’m really not sure. But if ever a film demanded that you abandon the need to intellectualize, it’s Mandy; it’s an exercise in tonal, aural, and psychovisual manipulation. And its last, greatest feat is that it’s also pulsing with feeling.
Cosmatos’ follow-up to 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow erupts, gory and Thing-like, from some doom-laden, prismatic purgatory, a film not so much produced as beamed out from the filmmaker’s psyche. Nicolas Cage is Red Miller, an exposed, twitching nerve subjected to the toxic air of living; it’s a demonstration of acting/being that rests alongside his work in Raising Arizona and Face/Off as the most primal and instinctive of his career. Red lives in a wooded mountain enclave – he has the anti-zeitgeisty occupation of lumberjack, yet his measured, solemn mode of being renders him indigenous-like, more a part of the cycle of nature and death than attempting to dominate it – with his languid lyric of a human partner, the eponymous Mandy.
As embodied by Andrea Riseborough, Mandy is ethereally present and aloof all at once, like a ghostly skip tracer sent to investigate the mortal realm only to decide to stay, discovering Black Sabbath, pulp fantasy/sci-fi novels, and a tender, loving home in Red. Narratively speaking, though, she’s an artist (but of course) and wolves, birds, and women mesh together in her work. The film’s first act unfurls an increasing tension that spells Mandy not being long for this world, much of it built around her excursions into the woods that surround them. When not in Red’s company – which will ultimately spell her doom, the tragic girlfriend horror trope being the film’s one retrogressive value – the camera captures Mandy tantalizingly nearer to the frame’s edges, often competing or melding with leaked light, pulsing auras, and elements of nature. In one scene, she mourns for a dead fawn she happens upon in a leafy clearing; it’s a genuinely sad moment and quiet foreshadowing, a Mother of All struggling to understand the death of one. How could she be meant for this earth when she is the earth?
Both she and Red are haunted indeed, psychically and physically (check out Mandy’s facial scar, something close to a lightning bolt exit burn), and their vaguely modern fantasy cabin is a safe respite from society’s overbearance. While she can see right into the core of the damaged Red (is it addiction that broke him? His interaction with substances in the film deserves further discourse), she gazes through everyone else, including us. We don’t get to know her the way Red does, but we believe she might’ve saved him from something, and Red’s affection for her – and later, his pain and grief – is nearly supernatural. The couple’s cosmic connection manifests itself in their conversations of atmospheric storms raging on the surfaces of Jupiter and of planets consuming planets, in Cosmatos’ evincing of galactic landscapes and lunar textures, and in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s inky, melancholic score. It’s undeniably pretty stuff.
When druggy lizard king Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) catches a glimpse of Mandy on a mountain backroad, the frame freezes her as she leaves it, something like her last known photograph, and the surreal ruralscape she and Red have built to shelter them from lizard kings across the spectrum of sobriety is irrevocably invaded. The film jumps tracks, too, and lets Jeremiah and his band of black-eyed, acid-stupored followers push the needle away from tone poem in the direction of dark-soul vengeance tale. And dark-soul it gets, my friend. I mean, Jeremiah employs the services of b-roll monsters from a Del Toro/Barker mash-up, who ride in on motorcycles via the hypnotic call of an ancient lute root and a crawling fog, kidnap Mandy, and imbibe a psychedelic smoothie, and if you said you saw that coming, you’re probably pretty disingenuous. But visually and aurally, the sequence is a jolt, and the first of many berserk moments to come that defy rational audience expectations.
So it’s bonkers, for sure, but that’s too flippant an encapsulation of the experience of Mandy. The demon-summoning, LED laser-lens flares, medieval weaponry-fetishizing, churning synth and axe rhythms, and the overall simmer of curdling darkness are collective flickers of a recurrent, suffocatingly inescapable nightmare, one fueled by loss – Cosmatos, in Rue Morgue magazine #184, notes the death of his parents as an influence on the writing of Rainbow and Mandy – and a miasma of cinematic reference points, everything from Mad Max to The Crow (both James O’Barr’s graphic novel and Alex Proyas’ 1994 film), from Friday the 13th to John Boorman’s Excalibur, from Raimi’s Evil Dead to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The film might also make for an interesting, exhausting triple bill – from both a stylistic and thematic vantage – with Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s John Wick and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising.
In fact, Cosmatos and Refn share kindred qualities as filmmakers: symbolic, Joseph Campbellesque archetypes and obtuse, Pinter-like dialogue; wild fluctuations of trippy, dream-state imagery and brutal violence; and propulsive music that skirts the line between diegesis and non-diegesis. There are few modern filmmakers who utilize color palettes in quite the way Cosmatos and Refn do, either, in expressing characters’ interiority and emotional projection. And, intentional or not, films like Mandy, Only God Forgives (2013), and The Neon Demon (2016) end up feeling like a prolonged drug haze, seductive and obviously fucking dangerous.
But Cosmatos has Cage here, so some of the spoken lines flow through him in crooked, wholly unexpected and emotional ways. Witness Red’s response – “Don’t be negative” – to Bill Duke’s Caruthers, the film’s Obi-Wan, warning him that going after the hellish culprits will only end in failure. It isn’t delivered with an ounce of smarm or cinematic self-awareness; in fact, an exhausted Cage exhales the line like lonely vapor, his spirit already having left his body. When one of the gurgling motorpsychos accuses Red of having a death wish, he sputters through tears, “I don’t wanna talk about that.” It’s a bizarrely heartbreaking, emotionally illuminating moment, albeit swaddled in oozy and ineffable weirdness. Much will be said about Cage’s breakdown/freak-out in his garishly 1970s, ski resort-style bathroom – and rightly so, it’s electric – but it’s these smaller bursts of raw misery that add depth to the lunatic proceedings. Red’s empathy and vulnerability make him something more and less than an unstoppable revenge machine. But then, you know, cue revenge-soaked bloodbath.
The film’s other performances are rich in ick. Roache’s sublimely unnerving theatrics have his Jeremiah aspiring to some Frampton-aesthetic level of cultdom, but coated in lava lamp gobs of male power privilege, venomous sensuality, and LSD – likewise his freak disciples’ penchant for indoctrinating new members by the sting of a tarantula hawk wasp the size of Kawhi Leonard’s fucking hand – he’s a potently menacing sociopath. And Ned Dennehy as Brother Swan will make skin crawl directly off the back of one’s neck.
Worth noting again is the film’s streak of goodwill and thought for the welfare of animals, or at least narrative metaphors for how we should coexist with them. Mandy tells a story of how as a young girl, she wouldn’t succumb to killing small starling birds as a rite of passage, at the direction of her father, no less. As Red begins his descent into the cult’s netherworld, he telepathically, with nothing more than the tremor of an eyebrow, commands drug cooker Richard Brake to release Lizzie, a stunning but caged Bengal tiger (portrayed, convincingly, by real tiger Corfu). Later, a salamander – in a Day-Glo color that makes me ponder whether Cosmatos had his cinematographer breed one in a neon terrarium – returns Red’s altruism by watching over him during a break in the slaughter.
The operatic pomp and gore, the pervasive nastiness of it all, belies Mandy’s beating heart. Even if, as depicted in one of the film’s handful of Heavy Metal-inspired animated sequences, that heart is ripped from a man-tiger’s chest, dripping electric green blood. It’s cinema as a storm, raging on our collective surface for a thousand years.
* * *
All images are screenshots from the film’s trailers.