Joyce Glasser reviews Mandy (October 12, 2018), Cert. 18, 121 min.
Nicolas Cage seldom plays characters you’d like to spend the day with. In Wild at Heart his character is jailed for killing a man. In Con Air he is a terrorist; in Leaving Las Vegas, he’s an alcoholic gambler and in Lord of War, an arm’s trader. In Ghost Rider he’s the devil’s bounty hunter. Arguably, his best role remains Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a character with serious anger management issues. Eight years on, Cage, heavier and hirsute, has turned himself into the personification of rage and the main reason to see Panos Cosmatos’ (Beyond the Black Rainbow) 1980’s-style psychedelic revenge orgy, Mandy. Andrea Riseborough, the eponymous love interest, is another. With its echoes of 1970s exploitation movies and 1980’s VHS slashers this hyper and hyper-stylised horror movie is aiming for cult status. Even if you can’t stomach the violence, Mandy is a qualified success.
Cage (looking every bit the part) plays Red Miller a lumberjack. As the camera glides over miles of evergreen trees and big red credits to the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautiful, but unsettling synthesizer music, Red drives home to his roomy isolated cabin in the woods (first trope) with its weird windows. He greets his partner Mandy, (Riseborough), who is an illustrator with a penchant for trashy novels.
We never find out how Mandy got the scar that runs from her left eye down her cheek, but in bed she tells Red a long story about her sadistic father and baby starlings. Usually it’s the woman left at home alone all day in a remote location who wants to move. Here, it’s Red who has the nightmares and wants to live somewhere else. Mandy says, ‘I like it here. It’s peaceful.’ Shots of the pair drifting in a boat on a crystal clear blue lake and huddled in front of the television eating dinner paint a picture of a loving couple happy in their own company.
Then suddenly Red finds himself in a waking nightmare. A van containing a demonic cult called Children of the New Dawn (who look like the evil dead on their way to a Halloween party) drive by the woods where Mandy is walking. Their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) locks eyes with Mandy. If you associate Roache with Merton Densher from the 1997 film, The Wings of the Dove, his role here ought to dispel that memory forever. Jeremiah believes he is a Messiah gifted with the right to take whatever pleasures he wants. He tells his subservient acolyte Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) that he wants Mandy.
Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré), who is only lacking a broomstick, tracks down Mandy at work at a remote petrol station reading a fantasy novel. Using a horn, Brother Swan summons an army of monsters on motorbikes straight out of the 1987 horror film, Hellraiser to execute the home invasion and abduct Mandy.
Cosmatos warps the sound and blurs the image to reflect Mandy’s hallucinogenic perspective. She is dragged into a room where Jeremiah’s demented disciples are lying across one another like snakes in a pit. Jeremiah puts his face in front of Mandy’s before offering his naked body to her. In a spine-chilling shot his face transforms into hers and back again, suggesting some connection between them.
And then suddenly Mandy bursts into a shrill, diabolical, fit of laughter. Jeremiah, who could be Charles Manson’s twin, does not have a sense of humour. Mandy has to be punished and Red has to watch. If Jeremiah thinks he’s the Messiah, it is Red, who is tied up and gagged with barbed wire (Christ’s crown of thorns); pierced in the side and who has his hand nailed to a wood bench.
While dousing his huge, near naked and bruised body with alcohol in between swigs, Red emits a cry of fury that would reach Jupiter, Mandy’s favourite planet. Then using one of the tropes of the revenge genre, Cosmatos sends him to visit his old friend Caruthers (Bill Duke), to collect some serious weaponry, while getting the lowdown on his adversaries. Caruthers warns him that his chances are not good.
The remainder of the film is the gory revenge. There are some well-orchestrated scenes though some (the chainsaw battle) look like they were shot for a supermarket video movie. When he goes after the bikers, Red imbibes some drug he finds in their kitchen which apparently helps him rise to the challenge.
It is interesting that in a film that is probably targeted at males under 50 the hero is Nicolas Cage, who is 54. Unlike 64-year-old Bruce Willis in the pointless remake of Death Wish earlier this year, Cage is charismatic and credible, while Cosmatos, despite the retro-references, has the vestiges of a vision.
It’s a shame that his vision is only half realised. It is almost as if he began making one film and ended up with another. Why have Mandy walk around in a Black Sabbath t-shirt and mention that she likes Jupiter ‘because there’s a storm that’s been raging since time began’ if you are not going to establish some connection with the horrific world that claims her? She reads paperbacks whose covers resemble her illustrations and the psychedelic colours of the forest skies. They also reflect the plethora of coloured filters that cinematographer Benjamin Loeb uses too often and too randomly for them to benefit from any kind of narrative meaning. Mandy is reading ‘Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye’ with descriptions like, ‘a ghostly emerald light, strange and eternal.’ Is this the book she is illustrating or does Mandy, traumatised by her sadistic father, harbour some secret perverse wish to be transported to the world of her novels. Or is the whole film her fantasy or Red’s ultimate nightmare?
Cosmatos and co writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn do not seem interested in provoking thought or even in exploiting the occasional echoes of Nordic mythology, even though, rather oddly, Red goes off to forge a deadly weapon. If Outlander was loosely based on the 9th century poem Beowulf, Mandy seems to content with celebrating a heap of random cinema references. Yet anyone who has seen Wagner’s Siegfried will be struck with the parallels: a sword that is forged to kill giants; magic powders and transforming drugs; and a cabin in the woods in which a strong hunter falls in love with a strange woman who has been abducted by a deranged, cruel monster.
You can watch the film trailer here: