I have a very good feeling about Panos Cosmatos’ future as a director. Beginning his career as a video assist operator on Tombstone, the iconic 1993 Western created by his cult filmmaker father George P. Cosmatos, Panos used the royalties from that film to finance his debut, the spellbinding Kubrickian head-trip Beyond The Black Rainbow. With its sumptuous and dreamlike visuals and score that lend a conflictingly beautiful and terrifying air to its tackling of New Age and dystopian themes, Rainbow has rightfully accrued a legion of die-hard devotees who celebrate the man’s bold, challenging and original approach to well-trodden narrative formulas.
That was in 2010, and many movie nuts wondered where the hell Panos had disappeared to until he came rocketing back a couple of years ago in the form of Mandy. An awe-inspiring phantasmagoria, it’s a film that has sharply divided consumers into ‘stylish masterpiece’ and ‘deranged shite’ camps, respectively. As you’ve probably guessed, yours truly is planted firmly in the former, as Mandy not only takes full advantage of Nicolas Cage’s frequently misunderstood talent but also graces the viewer with a veritably splendid OST and psychedelic landscapes that alternately shock, confound, and inexorably move.
It’s 1983, and we’re in the Shadow Mountains of California. Red Miller (Cage) is a lumberjack who lives in a secluded cabin with his girlfriend, the titular Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). Mandy works as a cashier at a gas station in the woods and makes striking fantasy art in her spare time. The two lead a deeply loving and peaceful existence away from the complications of normative civilization, both of them having suffered enough of life’s hardships that they’re interested in little beyond each other. The affection between them is palpable, cosy and deeply touching.
During Mandy’s walk to work one morning, she passes a van driven by the Children of the New Dawn, a batshit crazy, Manson Family-like cult led by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). A failed folk musician, Sand is convinced that God has ordained him with a carte blanche license to take whatever he wants from the world, commanding slavish devotion from his followers Brother Swan, Brother Klopek, Brother Hanker, Brother Lewis, Mother Marlene and Sister Lucy. The cult’s two female members are obsequiously on the receiving end of Sand’s domineering hypersexuality, and he is immediately transfixed by the sight of Mandy and wants her for himself. With the help of the Black Skulls, a terrifying and quasi-demonic gang of bikers with a taste for violent depravity and mutant LSD, Sand plots to take care of Red and abduct Mandy into his fold.
This quiet paradise now violated by these apex deviants, Sand and co. inadvertently awaken a monster within Red, a fundamentally decent man who nevertheless carries a talent for violence developed somewhere in his mysterious history. With the help of his friend Carruthers (Bill Duke), Red comes back into possession of his crossbow (nicknamed ‘The Reaper’) and hand-makes an insanely badass battle-axe before hitting the road with the intent of making Sand and his cronies rue the day they were shat out into existence. Cue a rabbit hole of otherwordly locales, superbly overwhelming trippiness and the kind of blood and guts that would make a butcher blush.
On the surface, there is nothing especially original about Mandy‘s narrative as it makes a bare-bones utility of one of the oldest tropes going, that being retribution. Good guy has something bad done to him, hunts down the bad guys to settle the score. The magic lies in the astonishingly immersive aesthetics that mark the journey, a heady blend of 1980s metal and fantasy reverence with Benjamin Loeb’s incredible cinematography mixing live-action and animation in equally rich measure. Shot in rural Belgium, Loeb used the Panavision anamorphic format to craft the film’s brilliantly gnarly midnight movie atmosphere, replete with film grain and a shocking colour palette of predominantly black and red.
This eye candy is immeasurably bolstered by a phenomenal score, the swan song of tragic Icelandic genius Jóhann Jóhannsson, with Red & Mandy’s inner world illuminated by the gorgeous and plaintive ‘Love Theme’ and the terror of the film’s villain quotient given satisfying representation in a cocktail of scary ambient, drone music and punishing black metal. As Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian put it, ”Have you ever drifted to sleep on a couch, an open copy of Métal Hurlant on your lap, as your friends play Dungeons & Dragons and a Slayer record spins? If not, don’t worry, Panos Cosmatos will recreate this moment for you.”. This remains the greatest, nail-hitting pithy summary of Mandy‘s visual-audial experience.
The work is ultimately about mood and atmosphere as opposed to narrative, although there is generous and well-crafted pathos in Red’s vendetta against Sand, a man whose delusions would merely be hilariously embarrassing were he not such a cruel and calculating figure. Cage’s expressionist method is in full force here, imbuing Red with a believably manic rage that is balanced by a more contemplative side. The man may have his detractors but there was simply no better choice for the role, as only Cage could deftly do justice to Mandy‘s eccentric gamut of emotions. Riseborough carries the title role with a calm, goddess-like purity of spirit, the mirror image to Sand’s diabolical narcissism. A veteran character actor known chiefly for his roles in complex British dramas, Linus Roache is deliciously vile as Jeremiah, a mean, small-minded man of fragile ego who loves to believe that he possesses great power and significance. He does a terrific job of making you want Red to subject him to indescribable agony.
Already enjoying a ‘Wait until you get a load of this movie’ status, Mandy is destined to become a cult film of legendary stature and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it comes to serve as a popular cosplay inspiration (I don’t go to many expos, but I know I’d rather see that than your garden-variety comic book fare). Don’t get me wrong, it’s likely to alienate cinephiles of a more conservative bent who could do without the abject wackiness but, for the right viewers, it is nothing short of a grand feast.