Mandy is one of the most exciting films I have seen in years. It combines hallucinatory imagery with a strange plot that is not exactly linear. Nicholas Cage plays a man on a quest for revenge after his girlfriend is slaughtered by demons. That alone makes it sound like an odd movie that leaves some curiosity about how such a story would be executed. Panos Cosmatos is more than up to the task, and he uses this odd storyline as a vehicle for surreal imagery and symbolism that is refreshing and enrapturing. Cosmatos earlier on directed Beyond the Black Rainbow, an odd and absorbing film that is so hallucinatory it is hard to figure out what is happening. It’s a very interesting and psychological film, but it was flawed for not allowing drama to develop in its odd visual wrappings. Mandy manages to balance surrealism with dramatic storytelling very effectively and features fine acting and interesting psychological development of its characters and their motivations.
The way the characters are portrayed is intriguing and different. We see them in impressionistic glimpses with deep emotion, but we don’t get full explanations or a linear story about Red Miller and Mandy Bloom. We mainly see that they’re in love and are both dreamy people. They seem to inhabit a world of their dreams and are intentionally disconnected from everyday life as much as possible. She likes to draw, and he works as a logger. While logging is hard work, the Nicholas Cage character of Red seems to enjoy it for being so apart from society. The two of them have a home in the woods, and they shut everything out. She works at a local convenience store and comes home to draw, and they both love to look at the stars. Mandy is wonderfully dreamy, and it combines dreaminess with horror in a way that manages to be disorienting and oddly beautiful. Nicholas Cage gives one of his strongest odd and enraged performances of a man psychologically shattered, and I am reminded of his work with David Lynch in Wild at Heart, another strange and surreal film from a highly stylized director. Both films are a journey, but this one is a descent.
The demons are shown in a wonderfully visceral way. Instead of supernaturalism, we get crazed bikers who would make Mad Max proud. They offset the calm gentleness of Andrea Riseborough’s character of Mandy very well. We also get a religious cult that allows for commentary on religion and hipsterism in a darkly skeptical way that is absorbing as a bit of social analysis. Horror films don’t have the social commentary force they once did when George Romero was working, and it is well appreciated to see Cosmatos work to resurrect this in his film about a dead girlfriend. The cinematography is beautiful and odd. The color grading uses bright color schemes but softens them and has them flow into cloudy pastels. So part of a frame will appear harsh while another part looks soft and dreamy. It’s a beautiful and strange effect, and it seems to fit the psychology of its two protagonists who have their dream like world intruded on by harsh violence and madness.
The descent of Red and Mandy is reflected brilliantly in the film score by Johann Johannsson with its harsh echos and musical screams of breakage amidst eerie haunting sounds that resemble industrial music. It sounds like an exploration of hidden interiors that are too apt to break us apart for it to be a good idea to explore them. Like a lot of movie scores, the opportunities for experimentation are ripe, and in this case, it sounds like a genuine musical advance. There are odd influences from heavy metal, psychedelia, Pink Floyd, Goblin, John Carpenter, industrial sounds, and other horror movies. I strongly suggest watching Mandy first, then listening to the soundtrack, and then watching the film again to absorb it all and see the psychological richness on display. Johannsson recently died, and this is his last score and quite a legacy.
Cosmatos has said he’s always been suspicious of hippie cults, and his previous film also explored that idea. The new one takes some of its discoveries and puts them into a more sensible narrative based on characters, where the other one seemed like a straight entry into distended madness with little explanation or exit. Mandy is killed by a group led by cult leader Jeremiah. He is a David Koresh like figure who is worshiped by his followers, and he likes to preach the end of the world and use hallucinogenic drugs. Cosmatos is taking the hippie interest in psychedelics and consciousness expansion and turning it into a dangerous upending of reality and normality. We see a shot of Mandy in her convenience store next to an American flag while one of Jeremiah’s gang visits and examines her. The flag can mean a lot of things to different people, but for Cosmatos it is just about a normal expectation of ordinary American life, a quiet life with her own place where her and her partner are left alone. Jeremiah’s insanity disrupts that. Mandy is not a conservative film, but it is suspicious of radicalism breaking things and taking away the basic pleasures of life.
The films of David Lynch are a nice reference point here, because he also deals with surreal themes and threats to ordinary safe domestic life. Lynch loves to reference the 1950s and paints it as a time of basic normal living in an undisturbed world of simple expectations. It’s his image of Amerrican tradition and its better norms. Underneath everyday life though, there are seedy and corrupt undercurrents of horror. Blue Velvet handled that exceptionally well with the white picket fence at the beginning of the film decaying into Kyle McLachlan finding a severed human ear in a cornfield and never being the same after. Cosmatos sees a similar world based on insanity. Jeremiah’s gang take LSD and become crazed killers with inhuman and depraved sensibilities, like a surreal vision of the Charles Manson gang of past fame. The suggestion seems to be that we should dream, but that it needs to be tied to normal lives. The basics of love, work, and domestic life are good things that give us the space to have real dreams and to see past ourselves in fulfilling ways, while Jeremiah’s hallucinatory decent and radicalism breaks the minds of himself and his followers.
Eventually it also breaks Mandy. She is kidnapped and treated horribly by the gang, tormented and then burned alive while idiots laugh about it. Her portrayal is heartbreaking. Cosmatos has a scar on her face, but Cage finds her beautiful. She seems to be kind and dreamy, and she just wants ordinary things, a simple job, home, love… and art. She likes to sit around reading and drawing, and we see at the end of the film that she liked to draw Nicholas Cage and saw him as her safety. Cage becomes enraged by what happens to her, and her death takes place at exactly the midpoint of the film and is its dividing point. He goes on a quest for revenge, and the last hour of the film is his search for resolution through avenging her death. He gets a crossbow with arrows that cut through bone, and he makes his own axe. It’s an impressive device and reminds me of Bruce Campbell’s iconic chainsaw in The Evil Dead.
His revenge quest is bloody and violent, but most of all, it seems like a descent into hell and madness. The way that Cosmatos is able to portray this cinematically is genuinely brilliant. He uses harsh angles, bright colors, deep blacks, and diffuse lighting as Cage’s world gets more disoriented in the closing segments of Mandy. Hippie legends about LSD start to look like hell on earth, and the wilderness that is safe on its own is twisted into an apocalyptic landscape. Cage does seem redeemed by killing everyone who killed his girlfriend, but we don’t get the sense that he will ever be happy or normal. Jeremiah went searching for extremes, and he twisted the lives of two normal people into hell.