DIR: Panos Cosmatos• WRI: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn • DOP: Benjamin Loeb • ED: Brett W. Bachman, Paul Painter • DES: Hubert Pouille • PRO: Nate Bolotin, Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Elijah Wood • MUS: Jóhann Jóhannsson • CAST: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache
There are very few actors out there – especially former Oscar winners – that you could get to do what Nicolas Cage does in Mandy. From crushing skulls to lighting a cigarette off a burning severed head to snorting cocaine off a shard of glass, Cage does it all and more. But Mandy is not just a movie destined to be confined to the midnight-movie circuit. It makes you wait for its mind-bending visuals and grindhouse violence. It’s to director Panos Cosmatos’ credit that Mandy never falters in its singular but multi-faceted and surreal vision. Beyond the blood and bone there’s something almost tender that barely any other movie of this kind can boast.
Lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) lives a life of solitude with his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in the Shadow Mountains in 1983. Surrounded by high peaks and tall pines they enjoy a peaceful existence only occasionally upset by both characters’ past traumas. On her way to work one day Mandy draws the interest of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a failed musician and leader of the Children of the New Dawn – a Manson-esque cult. The cult kidnaps Mandy, and Red embarks on a blood-crazed, cocaine fuelled revenge quest.
Mandy is about two hours long and it takes about half of that time to really get going. Cosmatos uses that time to lower the audience steadily into the world he’s dreamed up. The most common colour of the film is red from the crimson filters on camera lenses at the beginning to the blood that oozes, gushes and spurts in the second half of the film. Neon green alludes to the fantastical imaginings of Mandy as well as to the crazed bikers Sand commands later on. Colour abounds in Mandy and it is helped along by the grainy, pulpy look of the film itself as if it was shot on actual film reel. Brief animation segments raise their heads and so too does a mac ‘n’ cheese ad featuring a puppet goblin that vomits the cheesy goo. Rather than distract, these brief segments add to the ’80s feel of the film that never falls into homage or pastiche.
Cage and Riseborough’s performances could take place at any time realistically but the 1980s timeframe suits these characters and their actions within it. When Mandy at last revs into full gear it never really lets up until the credits roll. Red crafts a battle axe of solid, shining steel; picks up a crossbow from ’80s character actor Bill Duke (Commando, Predator) and then Red goes to war. In the last hour of the film Red sets a tiger free, shoves the shaft of his axe down a man’s throat and fights a chainsaw duel in a quarry. All lit by what seem to be the blood red fires of hell and scored to Jóhan Jóhannsson’s final score. The music throbs, swells and rumbles as Cage slices, roars and howls his way through the movie.
It can be hard to empathise with Nicolas Cage. His most insane roles have often found him playing barely likeable lunatics but with Mandy it’s pretty easy. A scene in the bathroom soon after Mandy’s kidnap has Cage howling and shrieking in feral animal pain. He swigs from a bottle of vodka and roars out all the pain and misery Red is afflicted with. If this is the only truly empathetic Nicolas Cage performance that is also the most insane Nicolas Cage performance than I think that Cage can count himself among the world’s greatest actors, living or dead. In a similar way – by virtue of being so committed to its fantastical world and nightmarish visuals – Mandy can count itself as one of the best grindhouse films ever made.