“Mandy, you’re a fine girl”
Nicholas Cage is the definitive lunatic actor, a fearless performer who happily takes on the wackiest smorgasbord of roles and often dials up his maddening psyche to a hilarious extent. Mandy, the latest film from Panos Cosmatos, seems like the perfect vehicle for a supremely unhinged Cage turn, but there’s a refinement to his rage and a nuance to his thoroughly engaging battle which makes this, perhaps, his best movie to date.
The story (also penned by Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-An) is of Red Miller, a lumberjack thrown into a world of psychedelic vengeance when a terrifying cult and their group of nightmarish bikers capture and burn his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), alive.
“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, wrap some headphones around my head and rock and roll me when I’m dead,” is the message presented to you on the opening screen. Famously the words of a convicted prisoner on death row, it serves as a fitting allegory for the deranged marriage of sound and visuals that blast you firmly into Mandy’s warped dimension. From the red serif fonts, to the grainy, grand, picturesque landscape that opens the picture, Cosmatos’ evidently loves the 80s. Like the testosterone fuelled action flicks of that time, all that’s missing from the introductory scene with Cage’s Red, who’s first seen holding a chainsaw, is the bouncing military theme of Alan Silvestri. Funnily enough, there’s a sensational scene with Predator‘s Bill Duke which is essentially a zinger-off inside a camper van.
We roam around “The Shadow Mountains, 1938 A.D.”, a ruthlessly quaint paradise that is just waiting to be ruined. The cult’s inevitable attack is terrifically employed; a total neon, flashing nightmare that brings about an onslaught of horrific scenes. There’s a whole thing with a massive hornet and it’s far and away one of the most asphyxiating scenes of the year. This is swiftly followed with a nightmarish rendition of a Carpenters number, some uncomfortable masturbating and then, fire.
Cosmatos’ aptitude for tough, unflinching imagery is commendable, showing us a menagerie of off-putting imagery, from dead animals to skinned faces. But what elevates the disgust beyond surface level gross-outs is the gorgeous and very critical use of lighting. Benjamin Loeb frames the high with an arthouse panache, seamlessly blending a neon-fuelled colour palette the likes of which haven’t really graced screens. The transitions are spell-binding, and what the filmmakers do really skilfully is manipulate the darkness around our twisted ensemble to accentuate the light that appears to radiate within them.
The progression of the fairly standard revenge plot is a brutal slow-burner, packed with some absolutely standout set-pieces (a bloody, bloody chainsaw battle which would literally make any film better). There’s plenty of goretacular kills and super stylish ambushes, but it’s all padded out too much. There’s a strong case to be made that the film could have been made with little to no dialogue at all and shortened by around 20 minutes – while the initial conversations between Red and Mandy elicit feelings of absolute contentment, as they chat about everything and nothing, the same gravitas could have been evoked from a further focus on the music.
Fittingly, the music is the best aspect of the film, only it has a bittersweet success. The last score from Jóhann Jóhannsson, before he sadly passed away, is an accomplished cacophony of at times ethereal, at others demented soundscapes. Infused with heavy metal riffs and deep, industrial synth-wave sounds, the composer was always known for being experimental but the praise here isn’t just extended to the quality and power of his music, it serves the story perfectly. For a film steeped in a hallucinatory state of being, Jóhannsson’s soundtrack conjures up a a transfixing atmosphere.
Cage’s work here is remarkable, honing in his career-known, memetastic flamboyancy and sharpening it into something much more sensitive, refined and compelling. His agony stretches through into your chest, pulsating like a burning fire. He is blessed with the ability to carry off some fantastic one-liners (“I’m your God now”) and perform a single-take in a bathroom, screaming while covered in blood and drinking an entire bottle of vodka. But most of all, he channels grief into its most furious form and his vindictive quest really hits home.
The cult stuff is mostly okay but not as straight-up mad as one may have liked. The bikers are great, and are more suitable within the beast Cosmatos goes for. But even beyond lines like, “The darker the whore, the brighter the flame”, the bog-standard members don’t carry the same intriguing gravitas as their foe. Perhaps they should have elected Chris Hemsworth as their cult leader.
A mind-bending phantasmagoria that sees a career-best Cage tackle a cult in neon-smothered hell.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm