Director: Panos Cosmatos
Screenplay: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke
Runtime: 121 Minutes
Only the second feature film from Italian-Canadian writer/director Panos Cosmatos, son of the famed George P. Cosmatos, Mandy might carry the influences of his fathers former work as much as building on his own authorial vision with Beyond the Black Rainbow, but in execution this action thriller revenge story following Nicholas Cage’s Red Miller and his quest to wreak vengeance on the hippie cult who commit an act of violence on his partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is anything but the craze powered 80s fest that it has been perpetuated by the filmgoing press.
The manner in which Mandy unfolds is one of it’s most surprising aspects, acting as a mood piece following an incredibly simple set up with very little exposition or dialogue of real plot-related consequence, the incredible slow burn that is the opening hour or so of the film is as breathtakingly focused execution of showing and not telling.
We are introduced to the tender relationship between Red and Mandy over the first of three separately titled segments (only the last of which is called Mandy), where we see a deeply rooted connection between the two that extends beyond words and into the visual scope of the films lighting, framing and long slow takes.
Both figures wear the scars of former damaged, sad lives, and having carved out these remnants of happiness for themselves live solitarily in their woodland home where Red is a lumberjack, and Mandy paints science fiction tableaus inspired by the works of low rent science fiction novels that she reads and takes solace in.
That solace is disrupted with the arrival of the Children of the New Dawn, led by Linus Roache as the egomaniacal Jeremiah Sand; a failed folk musician turned cult leader whose followers adore and cater to his every need and whim while he plies them with the copious amounts of deeply hallucinogenic substances to maintain his heady influence. Upon taking an immediate liking to Mandy, their decent marks a change in the narratives focus that set’s Red on a trail of destruction and self-destruction in the search for resolve.
It’s a simple, stripped down premise of names and locations, with characters fulfilling very basic requirements but being deeper informed by the combined weight of performance, aesthetic and atmosphere.
Cosmatos’ visual pallet draws heavy influence from a particular calibre of low rent fare released in the 70/80s, right down to the addition of film grain in a subtle way not used for nostalgic resonance, but to further the heady mind space of the rest of its visuals. Making a strong use of saturated primary colours, dissolves, crossfades and distortion it looks like a film as doped up as a majority of its characters are, the effect of which is as haunting and overpowering as the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s deep, dark and droning score of synthesised sounds and slow guitar strums.
It becomes apparent as one is watching it that there is no real supernatural element at play, and that the headspace the characters occupy is what is altering the world around them. Lighting cues represent so much of what needs to be conveyed, from the strobe green flashes around supposedly ancient artefacts of significance to the irradiating healing warmth of Mandy that fills in so much of the opening movements.
But then, as the third act makes a turn to the revenge aspect, the film transforms very quickly into complete trash. How exactly the film goes from a slow and mostly silence mood piece, and then suddenly Cage is duelling with chainsaws and snorting cocaine from a large shard of broken glass, is a hard thing to put into words because all the way through it manages to maintain its meditative themes of sadness and regret. All the while seeing his quest take on the signifiers and tableaus of the mythical underpinnings and ancient stories that feel like they’re informing it.
The final stretch may be what people want more of, or it might lose people entirely, but watching it change might feel initially jarring it’s an essential component of why the film ends up lingering as much as it does in memory.
The film literally makes its final descent into the hellish void of it’s own cosmic landscape, conjuring images of heavy metal and dark science fiction and fantasy so entrenched with Mandy as a character that even in her absence her presence remains saturated and dyed into the wool of the film to a deeply emotional and satisfying effect. It helps that in her scenes Riseborough is so extraordinary in balancing her performance with heart, softness, sadness and wrath that she lingers long after her character exits the frame.
Nicholas Cage is an often-misunderstood performer, whose go for broke acting choices and approaches are often mistaken for the work of someone who isn’t aware of exactly what he is doing. Cage’s particular skillset of surface level emotional outburst is used to its best effect here, and when combined with the relative lowkey of its reserve in the films early stretches, it’s one of the strongest performances he’s given in recent years.
Same goes for Linus Roache, who here represents the analogue that Cosmatos has worked with before when it comes to his adamant distaste for the new age spiritualism of Baby Boomer culture, that all to often ate itself under the influence of psychedelic substances in search for enlightenment, and found themselves moving toward more inhuman paths in contrast to their own ideas. Roach is magnetic in every scene he’s in as well as being the pathetic, all too human sad sack mess that demands to be laughed at more so than feared – but, as stated, the mood and vision of the film does more to influence his terror in the eyes of onlookers than anything else.
Mandy is one of the most visually arresting, original and vibrant hybrids of it’s kind to be released in 2018 – or even the past few years. That Cage, Riseborough and Roache all manage to deliver lasting, recognisably human performances that cut as deep as they do would be enough, but Cosmatos’ eye, his pacing, his composition and approach to its themes, elemental components and a masterful control over tone and ambience make this an experience worth treasuring above others.