What can be said about Mandy? I can safely, and enthusiastically, say that I have never seen anything like this movie. Comparisons to other directors and other films are flooding the internet right now, names like Refn, Argento, and Lynch being thrown out in an attempt to categorize and qualify the spectacle we had all just witnessed, but in truth every comparison falls short. For better or for worse, Mandy has no equal. It is in every sense of the word a trip, a treat for the senses that strikes a balance so few films can. It is outlandish and bizarre, giving only brief explanations for its world, but in this outlandishness it dares the audience to take it seriously. This movie is not “campy”, or “ironic” like so many of it’s lesser ilk, it is heavy, dark, and supercharged with emotion and beauty. The lighting, the soundtrack, the performances, the sheer artistry involved in the creation of this masterwork has fulfilled a fantasy that so many people have attempted to create in the past but never truly succeeded in: this movie is heavy metal brought to life.
Before I even touch on Nicolas Cage’s excellent performance, I want to dedicate as much text as possible to the true main characters of this movie: the visuals, and the soundtrack. Nothing about this movie would be as transcendental as it is if were not for the incredible visual choices made. Primary colors course through the veins of this film, with lighting that makes no logical sense in the best way. Blue flickers through a house, almost as if lightning were arcing through it, over and over in order to reveal the terrifying forms of the Black Skulls. Red fills the frame and bleeds out every other color as the insane form of Jeremiah Sands preaches his cults manifesto straight into the camera. The lighting and color has no natural, logical source. It exists purely as an artistic and atmospheric flair, and it injects so much life and purpose into the film that it’s difficult to convey with words. It is ethereal and electrifying, it is beautiful and terrifying, it takes you to another world and keeps you there for two solid hours. The reasoning behind all of this is not just to make a film that looks good, but one that transports you into another world, one populated with tigers, LSD, biker gangs, cults, and the terrifying visage of Nicolas Cage. This is a fantasy film, if only because the atmosphere of the entire piece feels so other-worldly. There are hints around the edges of supernatural goings-on, but nothing explicit is ever touched on. Instead, the audience is invited to immerse themselves in this world that is unlike anything they’ve ever experience, created from the ground up to be the intersection between beauty and violence. I can’t emphasize enough what a difficult feat it must have been to craft this movie, with it’s dark tone and buckets of blood, to also be awe-inspiring and elegant. The aesthetic of the movie perfectly matches the tone, and in fact establishes it more than anything else in the film. Large chunks of the movie are relatively dialogue-free, so it’s up to the visuals to tell the story and convey the message, and it accomplishes this task effortlessly.
As much credit as I give to Panos Cosmatos, the director, I have to give the cast their fair share of the credit here as well. In Mandy, they are essentially living set pieces, existing to extend and perpetuate the tone of the film. Mandy, the titular character, (played here by Andrea Riseborough) is a terrifying beauty, existing in this realm that is at times both comforting and unfamiliar. There is no doubt about it, she looks creepy, especially with the scar(?) on the side of her face, and her deep, dark eyes that seem to stare into your soul. But she also possesses a beauty and innocence that propels the film forward by making her into the victim of the story. By letting us spend time with her, she becomes someone that we really do want to see avenged. And Linus Roache playing the cult leader Jeremiah Sands is an absolute terror, manipulating and exploiting his followers, using drugs to brainwash them into falling in line with his narcissistic self-worship, and generally taking whatever he wants, regardless of morality. In the first half of the film, there are some genuinely terrifying scenes of him and his apostles, pupils frighteningly wide from their constant LSD abuse, giving them an unnatural look that lends itself to the evils they commit. As with most of the roles in this movie, Jeremiah Sands is really just an incredibly well acted archetype, which for it’s purposes works extremely well. He has no motivation besides clinical levels of narcissism, and yet despite this, the talent behind the character makes him incredibly memorable. It goes along with what I wrote earlier about the film daring to take itself seriously. A lot of things that Jeremiah does could, when taken out of context, be used as a punchline or played as a joke, but within the context of the film, and all of his other actions, these things because deeply unsettling, as you realize you are staring deep into the mind of a truly disturbed individual. His insanity is placed front and center, and Mandy forces you to look at it without wavering.
It is the establishment of Jeremiah and his cult as truly evil psychopaths that makes the second half of the movie so satisfying. I’ve said little of Nicolas Cage up to this point, and that is primarily because his involvement in the first hour or so of the film is relatively minor and passive, as he is simply a witness and victim of Jeremiah’s cult. But once he is given a reason for vengeance, there is a palpable shift, and Cage takes center stage in what is undeniably the role that his entire career has been building up to. In interviews, he calls himself not an actor, but a performer, one who is always seeking out roles that sound interesting to him regardless of the status or reception of said roles. His flexibility and willingness to really take on outlandish characters and make them his own is what gives such gravitas to his character Red. He approaches his role with the same daring seriousness that the film takes on, and because of this, the delivery he ‘s able to give just about every single line in the movie gives the role so much more weight than anyone else would be able to bring to it. He is able to embody the grief-stricken rage that Red embraces as his fuel, and takes it to another level. Quite a bit of the film lacks dialogue in the second half, primarily consisting of set pieces and action sequences that are broken up by slow, patient moments that allow us to truly take in the carnage. But despite this, it feels like Cage is speaking to us all the way through it, his body language is so determined and clear that it takes the place of dialogue, rendering any spoken word as pointless, because it could not convey meaning as clearly as the look in his eyes can. There is a scene in the movie where he meets a character, and for the entire scene, Cage just stands there as the other character speaks to him. 5 solid minutes of monologue from this minor character we never see again, and the entire time the most captivating part of it is Cage’s gaze, a determination and single-mindedness that you can see so clearly in his eyes that not a single word needs to be spoken. There’s a reason people are praising this as his greatest role, it embraces his mythos, his absurdity, his range, and compresses it all into a character that wreaks absolute havoc. Red is concentrated chaos, committing brutal and wonderful acts
The joy that filled the theater as Red was loosed upon the world was so clear, as we all rejoiced in the chainsaw duels, the beheadings, the axe he creates from scratch, it is all a culmination of the movie’s atmosphere that it works so hard to cultivate. It revels in the pandemonium and asks us to join it in it’s celebration, and the satisfaction of seeing such a seriously dark movie simultaneously bring true enjoyment to it’s audience was so fantastic. Mandy is not a film for everyone, really it’s not a film that most people would enjoy. But that’s okay, Mandy exists in a niche that doesn’t need wide-appeal. By allowing itself to focus on it’s strengths and amplify those elements to 11, it has become a truly unique film, existing on the borders of beauty and brutality.