Sometimes you’re left scratching your head over a movie, wondering what it was about it that had others rapturously raving while you were left shrugging. I at least saw the cult appeal of Panos Cosmatos’ previous picture, Beyond the Black Rainbow, which inexorably drew the viewer in with a clinically psychedelic allure before going unceremoniously off the boil in a botched slasher third act. Mandy, though, has been pronounced one of the best of the year, with a great unhinged Nic Cage performance front and centre – I can half agree with the latter point – but it’s further evidence of a talented filmmaker slave to a disconcertingly unfulfilling obsession with retro-fashioning early-80s horror iconography.
There’s a ponderousness to the first hour of Mandy that suggests Cosmatos believes he’s rendering something of depth, that will get under the skin. But really, all he’s doing is fine-tuning atmosphere, to be discarded later for Nic going the full Cage with a chainsaw; he’s in the service of portentous shlock, basically.
I’m sure advocates of the picture are responding to the whole kit and caboodle –mostly the chainsaw fight, though, let’s face it – but my reaction was one of listlessness. Mandy‘s too self-seriously moody to be a fun movie wallowing in its gory tropes, and that moodiness tends towards an endurance test; the addled ramblings of a writer-director evidently far too fixated on his own formative altered-states drug habit, even if it’s largely historic (“I just can’t do drugs any more“; “Every time I’ve tried to smoke weed now I feel like I’m in a battle with the demon’s embrace. It feels like an epic power struggle against the universe“).
Cosmatos’ garbled account of what Mandy‘s about suggests he’s still suffering the after-effects, even when he doesn’t try to smoke weed now. Of Cage’s Red, transforming into a revenge-fuelled unstoppable force in the second half of the picture, Panos comments “he has sort of modified into this sort of demigod-like, gazing war beast, gollum, sort of enacting pure will on the mortal coil“. Yeah, dude! Righteous! Er, what?
As such, I evidently saw a different film to one of the year’s most visceral love stories “handled with profound sensitivity and told with hypnotic precision“. Rather, I encountered an exercise in juvenilia in terms of structure and content, the junk imagining of a fourteen-year-old let loose with a movie trainset and a packet of pseudish gibberish (“I wanted the weapon he forges himself to crystallise, a manifestation of his grief and insanity and not like a real object“). Yeah, it probably is the best movie of the year if you’re really high while watching.
Don’t get me wrong, Cage and Andrea Riseborough (the titular character) are formidable, and I’m happy to watch either in pretty much anything (although, Cage seems intent on testing his faithful with his output of late), but I’m unpersuaded by the great love story allowed to breath in the opening stages. It feels to me that Cosmatos thinks this slow, underwritten, wispy Athena poster of interaction will instil their relationship with meaning and so underwrite the revenge side when Mandy is taken. But it doesn’t, really. Instead, we’re constantly barraged by geek trapping distractions. Mandy’s more defined by her Black Sabbath t-shirt than her starlings story, Red by his affinity for Galactacus as his favourite planet (“Galactacus isn’t a planet“).
Early on, I wondered if there might be conceptual coherence to Red’s initial choice of Saturn, the expression of the demiurge, that he might be seen in some way to have invited the events that follow, just as Mandy wearing an inverted pentagram may have attracted the cult. But I don’t think there’s any kind of depth to the references; Cosmatos has just thrown in stuff he thinks is cool. He talks in interviews about how Mandy is Galactacus, “she is the one who eats planets“, but the reference is one he added after Cage was cast. It smacks of making it up as you go along. No, I don’t want to smoke any more weed. Oh, okay. Go on.
Honestly too, the much-cited vodka-fuelled full-Cage scene, in which Red breaks down in his underpants, did nothing for me. But then, the director refers to the sequence as “an absurdist one-act play“, so if he’s that removed from making us care about the central relationship, it’s not surprising it doesn’t quite hit the spot.
It pinpoints where the movie is lacking; Cosmatos is big on the atmosphere – credit where it’s due, he’s really, really good at it – but he appears indifferent to the beats of emotion. The second half is a revenge picture, but it isn’t driven by our desire to see Red’s revenge, in the manner most such narratives operate (take Straw Dogs, for example, where it’s palpable). It just happens. Of course, this is a director who gave his star Friday the 13th Part VII to watch as prep for the movie’s climax.
You can dress a movie up in whatever finery you like (if in doubt, throw in some Joseph Campbell), but when you hear “I think maybe one of the first things I realised I wanted done was probably the chainsaw fight“, it becomes very clear where the viewer stands. Perhaps Cosmatos is genuinely bewildered by the serious attention he’s receiving for Mandy. He comments that this is a movie about dealing with loss… Yeah, but so is Death Wish; are we going to campaign for the auteurist rep of Michael Winner?
Cosmatos seems content to throw in any kind of randomness under the loose label of an alternate, mythologised ’80s landscape, believing that’s enough. So we get an acid-bikers-that-ate-Paris-from-hell gang that may as well have ridden off the An American Werewolf in London set, just without the accompanying laughs. There’s something somewhat infantile about his approach. But then, Panos pretty much admits as much, that the 1983 depicted is “this sort of landscape of my childhood memories and my emotions of the time and I’m coping with them now“.
Jeremiah: Do you like The Carpenters? I think that they’re sensational. But this is even better.
I was going to suggest Cosmatos has no idea about how the Children of the New Dawn, the cult he’s created, functions, but apparently, there’s a seventeen-minute track called My Journey, in which Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) gives his views on the world and God.
From the movie, though, they’re a mash of incoherent tropes, from Manson-esque musical stylings (and concordant mockery of the same from Mandy – “You wrote this song?” – before laughing). Red refers to them as “Jesus freaks“, but there seems precious little evidence for that, particularly since he follows it with “They were weirdo hippy types“. Cosmatos refers to “creating this mythological landscape, and then populating it with neurotic people“, which to be fair does describe its members, and the jealousy of Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouere) at the new chosen one in their midst (Jeremiah “thinks you’re so special“).
They appear marked as a personality cult (“If you’re not with me, you will not ascend“) who, of course, take weird William Burroughs drugs (“I like to call that the cherry on top“) and have an artificially elevated view of their superiority: “Take a good look, you worthless piece of human excrement. This is the Tainted Blade of the Pale Night. Straight from the Abyssal Layer“. Red’s a mere human, one of the “Poor stupid dogs. Born without souls“.
This has been something of a year for cult movies, as in movies featuring cults, but Mandy‘s are much nearer to the spurious group of Apostle than the clearly demarcated one of Hereditary.
The picture boasts a fine Jóhan Jóhannson score and effectively evocative cinematography from Benjamin Loeb, but when I read about the “unnervingly beautiful and grotesque worlds” of Cosmatos’ imagination, my kneejerk response is to suggest “You mean retro synths and a red colour filter?” I’m being reductively crude, but then so is much of Mandy, complete with lovingly silhouetted axed villain’s head. There are appealingly goofy touches, like the Ralph Bakshi-esque animated Mandy seen by Red at intervals, but it simply underlines that these are the teenage appetites of its director put on celluloid.
Cage gets some good Cage-isms that will no doubt go down in his lexicon; his obsession with his favourite item of clothing (“You ripped my shirt!” he declares to a cannibal biker before stabbing him in the throat, this after he’s dispatched another with “You are a vicious snowflake” sign off). And he takes some weird biker drug – of course he takes some weird drugs – so becoming “a Jovan warrior sent forth from the eye of the storm“. Which effectively means he ends up embroiled in a sub-Bruce Campbell/Braindead splatterfest, culminating in his confrontation with Jeremiah, where he grandly announces “I’m your god now“. And engages in some orgasmic skull bursting. The effect is nothing so much as puerile.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t the Cage-rage classic I’d hoped for; there are only a few precious moments offering the kind of manic flip out he’s celebrated for. Certainly, nothing that can go the distance with the monumental insanity of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Red: They were weirdo hippy types. A whole bunch of them. Then there was the muscle. It didn’t make any sense. They were bikers and gnarly psychos and… Crazy evil.
You’ve got a plot synopsis for Mandy right there, and just as intelligible. It’s clear Panos Cosmatos never got past the early-80s video nasties his dad let him watch unfiltered; at least, it looks as if he’s going to be stuck on that track, stranded in 1983, for the rest of his career. Which is a little weird.
Mandy suggests his approach is all period reference, with no real identity beyond that. I thought Beyond the Black Rainbow might have been a taster for a director who would grow in psychedelic splendour and thematic depth, but this suggests only regression. There’s something of a witless Garth Merenghi about Cosmatos’ era-specific genre doodling, but without the accompanying mirth. Mandy’s undoubtedly worth a look for the sounds and visuals, but they ultimately serve to emphasise how empty it is.