There must be something terribly similar happening in the current climate, to see so much ironic 1980s nostalgia in genre movies lately.
Set very pointedly during the Reagan era, Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos’ latest film, Mandy, is a giant, nightmarish middle finger to the misguided hippie years that ushered in the even worse infestation of the yuppie. The antidote to all of this failed ideology? Pure heavy metal. And why the hell not?
But Mandy is more than just a vivid and unrelenting ode to a Boris Vallejo painting. It’s even more than peak Nic Cage in a chainsaw battle. Though that alone is pretty noteworthy.
Mandy is also about a woman. Mostly.
Spoilers and King Crimson after the cut.
Panos Cosmatos’ first feature film, Beyond the Black Rainbow, was divisive, less of a commercial success than the kind of movie film nerds love. Also set in 1983 and a spiritual companion to Mandy, Cosmatos created a mesmerising ode to Cronenberg and Kubrick in a twisty sci-fi thriller with a killer synth score, but the style alone couldn’t keep the overall story from being muddled. Mandy has no such problems; it’s an extremely simple revenge story elevated into something satisfying and even beautiful because of Cosmatos’ deliberate excesses and a few stellar surprises.
Red (Cage) is a stoic lumberjack in a kinda-sorta Pacific Northwest logging community. His girlfriend is a younger woman with long black hair, a pair of period-perfect eyeglasses, and a love of fantasy art. We know nothing much about them, like how they met, how Mandy got the scar under her eye, or why they choose to live in an isolated cabin with walls mostly made of windows, a beautiful pastoral temple. All we do know for sure is that they love and need each other and it’s very believable.
Not just Red’s girl, Mandy (Birdman’s Andrea Riseborough) is her own solitary creature. She works a register at a sleepy general store and reads pulp novels like Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye by a fictional author named Lenora Tor and illustrates chimeras in dreamy planetscapes. At night, bathed in moonlight or a television’s glow, she shares mundane opinions and alludes to childhood trauma. When Mandy is out walking by herself one day, she catches the eye of Jeremiah Sand, a self-styled guru who decides then and there that Mandy is to be his newest acolyte.
More Manson than messiah, Sand is a failed rock star who has found his next calling in religion, leading a group of stragglers who barely qualify as a cult. At their command is a horn that can summon demonic bikers, like extras from Hellraiser, to do Sand’s bidding and terrorize Red and Mandy. In a movie where Nic Cage forges a real-deal battle axe to slay some leather daddies, actor Linus Roache steals the show as the despicable embodiment of mundane evil. Nothing in Mandy is as distressing as a naked Jeremiah Sand forcing a drugged and captive Mandy to listen to his pathetic folk ballad and his even more pathetic monologue.
As Sand talks on and on about “his wants, his needs, his pleasures,” his face is superimposed over Mandy’s and they switch back and forth, back and forth, a visual struggle symbolizing a bigger face-off between a mediocre middle-aged dude and a young woman who knows her own power. Mandy doesn’t scream or fall under Sand’s sway—she does the unforgivable.
She laughs at him.
There was no way Mandy was getting out of this movie alive after that (this isn’t a huge spoiler), but she goes out having destroyed Jeremiah’s manhood in a way that makes Red’s own vengeance nearly perfunctory. Horror, tragedy, and much manly screaming follows, but none of that stayed with me as much as Mandy’s lack of a scream.
We’ve all seen that fridged-girlfriend movie countless times before. We haven’t seen many movies like Mandy.
Cosmatos divides his film into multiple chapters, with their own title cards, done up in Lisa Frank sparkle, perfect for a vintage band t-shirt. We don’t even see the actual title of the movie until an hour into it. That’s when Mandy, the woman, unfortunately takes on a literal two-dimensional role as Red descends into the hell of grief. Previously muted, Red reshapes the nightmarish world into a reflection of his namesake and Nic Cage reaches peak Nic Cage, bug-eyed and blood-soaked. Worth pointing out is that, as gory as the movie is, there is no depiction of rape and none of the violence towards women is gratuitous in that all-too-familiar grimy grindhouse way. LSD-freaks, however, get the full brunt of Red’s wrath. In this surreal reality, the beauty of the forest retreats and in its place are ominous mountains, sacred daggers, pyramids, ATV’s straight out of Mad Max, and a freaking tiger. Hell looks an awful lot like a painting you’d see airbrushed on the side of a van. Red is Orpheus, or he is insane, or the whole landscape was created by Mandy’s illustrations come alive. There’s room for a lot of fan theories.
Mandy keeps dosing the audience with enough lens flares, skewed perspectives, and color to make the viewer question if they, too, might’ve accidentally ingested some illicit substances. After what happens to Mandy, you’ll feel for Red even as you guffaw at the outrageousness of Nic Cage on a murder-bender. Released in theaters and on VOD, my recommendation would be to see Mandy with as big a crowd as possible, to communally enjoy the madness and nervous giggling and really feel immersed in the foreboding soundscapes of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final score.
Whether you’re part of the crowd that wants a thoughtful, twisted, journey into loss or the simple joy of an over-the-top Nic Cage slicing baddies in half to headbanger music, Mandy is a real cult-worthy crowd-pleaser.
Theresa DeLucci is having Cheddar Goblin mac n’ cheese for dinner tonight. A regular contributor to Tor.com covering TV and horror fiction, she’s also gotten enthusiastic about pop culture for Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, and Den of Geek. Follow her on Twitter.