The revenge film is a well-worn genre, but it’s safe to say no one’s ever made a revenge film that looks or feels quite like Mandy, the second feature from Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow), which is basically what would have happened if Jodorowsky had made a biker film for Roger Corman in the ‘60s.
Mandy is unsettling from frame one, but this two-hour film is definitely two very different films packed into one surreal running time, and it will help draw in potential audiences if whoever releases this teases the mayhem of the second hour in their eventual trailers. The first hour is all about the reason for that mayhem, and it is a strange and remarkable exercise in building an alternate world that isn’t about special effects, but about a feeling that every detail here is off in some regard, bent just slightly, askew in a way that is impossible to pinpoint. There are few phrases I dislike more than “on acid” when someone is trying to describe a movie, because it’s become so overused that it’s meaningless. Most of the time, when someone says that, I assume that the person has never done acid, and the film they’re describing in no way resembles the experience. Panos Cosmatos, on the other hand, has managed to create a film that feels like a drug trip, and considering how much of the actual text of the film features characters talking about and doing LSD, it is both intentional and appropriate that he has created this lysergic vocabulary for the story he’s telling.
Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in an isolated forest in the Shadow Mountains. Red appears to work a lumber job of some sort, while Mandy spends her days working in a small store and indulging her own instincts to paint and read and wander through nature. She is an odd bird, to say the least, and Red adores that about her. They’ve built this private world for themselves on purpose, and when they retreat there, they speak their private language, spend time in their own private ways, and they don’t have to care about anyone or anything else.
So of course someone’s going to spoil that. And in this case, Jeremiah (Linus Roache) is the leader of a small, strange cult called the Children of the New Dawn. Their sacrament involves an incredibly strong small-batch hallucinogen made for them by a local chemist, and it is dumb luck that they happen to be driving by one day as Mandy walks on the side of the road. Jeremiah sees her, and he is immediately drawn to her. Riseborough, who never remotely looks the same in any two movies, is like a goth version of young Shelley Duvall here, long and gangly, her straight hair framing that eight-head and those Margaret Keane eyes. Cosmatos makes the most of her eyes, and there are times where it almost feels like they are special effects, larger than possible. From the start of the film, there’s a sense that we’re not in a conventional reality. Mandy’s a painter, and Cosmatos is careful to show us Red’s reactions to her work, but not the work itself. My feeling is that the film takes place first in the world that she sees and feels, with colors soaked through in strange ways, and then Jeremiah sees her, and that color palette shifts to the way he sees things through the filter of his personal psychedelic frequency. The collision of those two worldviews creates the wild visual playground for the rest of the film, and Benjamin Loeb’s photography is bold and inventive throughout. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is incredibly specific and helps create this dissociative feeling of time and space.
When Jeremiah decides that he wants Mandy for his own, you know things are going to get bad. But the staging of that sequence, and the build-up to it, and the summoning of the henchmen that help Jeremiah, and then the insane aftermath once Mandy responds to his advances… that stretch of filmmaking… it’s an indicator that Cosmatos and his co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn absolutely know what movie they’re making, and they are after something that draws together all of the various things that have influenced them in a way that is personal and authentic, and not just about what looks cool. Roache gives an insane performance, and everything builds up to the moment Mandy sits in front of him, freshly dosed with the same intense acid that the cult uses, and he presents himself for her awe. What she does, and how he reacts to it… that’s the movie. That’s what this is really about. This is a film that lays bare one of our ugliest truths: the thing men are most afraid of is being laughed at by a woman, and the thing a woman is most afraid of is being killed by a man. All of this takes place in the first hour of the film, and then the second hour brings Red to the center as he has to pick himself up and decide how to address this profound, immoral wrong.
Cosmatos uses title cards to break up the movements of the film, and when you see the single word “Mandy” finally appear and then start to bleed, buckle up. The rest of the movie plays at a whole different level of intensity, and it is absolutely deranged. This is exploitation language, but meant with a bruising degree of heartfelt pain. Nicolas Cage is not playing this as a joke. This is not campy or tongue-in-cheek. It is opera. It is like Argento’s best work, elevated simply by virtue of how it’s put together. The film is lush and gorgeous even at its ugliest, and the further it goes, the deeper the mark it’s trying to make on you. Cage is the Terminator here, with what feels like less than 200 lines of dialogue in the whole film. And through it all, he is haunted by Riseborough, and Cosmatos keeps that alive, makes sure we’re feeling it with him.
The more I write about it, the more I talk about it, the more I dig it. By the time the film’s startling final images play out, it’s clearly something special, the work of someone who has a voice that should be protected and nurtured and encouraged. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not especially easy to describe to a potential viewer. But for those who are on that same strange wavelength, Mandy is a beautiful, wild ride, one that XYZ Films and SpectreVision should be proud of, and one that will inspire a faithful (and hopefully less homicidal) cult of its own.
Running time: 120 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic