They don’t make them like this anymore. Panos Cosmatos’ relentless crack at extreme cinema finds Nicolas Cage up to his usual antics – snorting cocaine off broken glass, lighting a cigarette with a flaming skull, and battling “Jesus freaks” with a chainsaw. What begins as an ethereal, tender love story soon becomes an unruly trip – a tar-covered nightmare, engulfed in demonic imagery and violent tropology. They certainly don’t make them like this anymore – have they ever?
Eight years on from his first feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow (think Ex Machina after hours), Cosmatos positions his film in California’s Shadow Mountains, 1983. Deep in the woods, lumberjack Red (Cage) lives a tranquil, secluded life with his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Quiet, blissful and unassuming, they’re a couple that eat their meals on the couch, and end their nights curling up to a trashy movie on TV. Mandy reads high fantasy novels and doodles dark entities – the likes of which, while far more cartoonish in appearance, are no less sinister than the evil we soon encounter.
Mandy soon draws the attention of a local cult – the Children of the New Dawn, a group of hippies-stroke-Christian-fundamentalists, led by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). While invariably Manson-esque, Jeremiah’s unhinged rationale and incendiary tendencies lean more towards Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth. His instantaneous, carnal obsession with Mandy finds Jeremiah ordering his henchmen to kidnap her – and leave Red for dead.
Once an idyllic and undisturbed cabin by the lake, Mandy and Red’s home then becomes the site of bone-chilling horror, as the Black Skulls, a satanic biker-gang summoned by the Children, descend upon their private abode. Their bedroom – a blue-tinged glass box that’s almost aquarium-like in its design – here reveals itself as dangerously exposed to the terrors that lurk at night, and Red watches helplessly as Mandy is taken to Jeremiah.
For chainsaw-related reasons delineated earlier, the nearly-comic second act is as unapologetically nuts as they come. Yet, most striking of all is how Mandy juggles its two incongruities – excessively chaotic whilst delicate and tragic – without ever revealing them as such. The infamous bathroom scene is indeed a triumph of Cage’s turbulent physicality, but it’s also emotionally devastating if you allow it to probe a little deeper. Jeremiah is a wonderfully cartoonish villain for Red to violently pursue, but he’s also a disturbingly relevant figure in light of the male entitlement of Trump’s America. Cosmatos never refrains from having his fun with us, but he also inflicts this ‘80s genre movie with an unfortunately contemporary prescience.
One of his final contributions for his tragic passing earlier this year, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score contains his most ambitious and avant-garde compositions in film – a prominent area of his solo career that was largely unexplored elsewhere. King Crimson naturally make for a perfect accompaniment for the film’s opening, their “Starless” introducing us to Cosmatos’ unsettling but nevertheless dreamlike worldscape, the mood of which Jóhannsson effectively prolongs for the rest of the first act. Perhaps his most striking contribution, here, is the creation of something with the celestial beauty of the “Mandy Love Theme” in amongst the nightmarish barrage of clanging guitars and mystic synths. While Cosmatos offers plenty of visual cues towards establishing Mandy’s unique cinematic presence, it’s often Jóhannsson’s music alone that conveys this singularity.
It’s a fiercely uncompromising and stylistically provocative work that certainly won’t work for everyone – even those that want to submit themselves to its devilish charms. Not quite artificial, but deeply unnatural, Mandy puts us in a similarly puzzling state of spectatorial limbo. A few of its intended blows don’t always land, but it’s a wicked and unwavering sensory rush that I want again and again.
Dir: Panos Cosmatos
Scr: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache
Prod: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Elijah Wood, Adrian Politowski, Martin Metz, Nate Bolotin
DOP: Benjamin Loeb
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Country: Canada, US
Runtime: 121 minutes