Some films need to be seen and experienced to be believed; where rumor becomes hype and gives way to the possibility of a false god or a new revelation. As with all things, where you fall depends on how well you connect with the message. In the case of Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow), he utilizes the full might of cinema’s enormous power to craft Mandy; a story that rattles the minds and jolts the souls of the characters and audience in equal measure. With beautiful cinematography, a pounding score, and compelling performances, Mandy lives up to the hype, but beware: don’t lose yourself in the experience.
Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live a quiet, idyllic life in the isolated mountains of the Pacific Northwest: he works cutting lumber and she mans the checkout at a small country store. Their simple union is torn asunder after Mandy crosses paths with cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) who takes an immediate liking to her and send his minions out to acquire her. His body beaten, his mind distraught, and slowing losing his grip on reality, Red embarks on a journey of vengeance to destroy everything Jeremiah holds dear, even if it means burning the world to the ground.
Audiences expecting blood and violence will get what they desire, but not before spending time with Red and Mandy, not before a brief introduction to Jeremiah and his people. Rather than racing toward a showdown, Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn designed a simple and focused story and executed it with a patient touch. Instead of presenting the loving couple on a high-velocity collision course, the script makes the inevitable occur through the worst kind of villainy, the kind born out of an accidental meeting. Slumped in the passenger seat of a van as it drives down a dirt road, Jeremiah spots Mandy walking peacefully. Their eyes lock briefly and the image shifts as though to represent the way her visage, though slightly muddled by the speed of the car as it moves past, is burnt into his mind. It would be sweet if his response wasn’t to call upon a group of killers known as the Black Skulls to remove Red and collect Mandy. These are the bulk of the players and in order for any of their actions to feel meaningful, for Mandy to be more than narrative sacrifice so that the audience can live out a revenge fantasy, for Red’s absolute loss of sanity, for Jeremiah’s God complex to have meaning, the audience must first know them. While some audience members might paint the narrative as slow or dragging, without a decelerated approach, Mandy’s nothing more than a revenge tale propped up by a beautiful backdrop. But with it, a journey unfolds with devastating consequences.
The patience within Mandy to create lasting detail extends from the script into the cinematography and direction. The whole of the film exudes the aura of classic horror films of the ’70s and ’80s, but nowhere as strongly as the opening of the film. Here, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb treats the initial images to appear a touch fuzzy, the edges slightly burnt, removing the crispness of modern films. Red is the first character we see, working with a chainsaw to bring down a tree before a chopper arrives to airlift the crew back to the main site at the end of the work day. Though a peaceful scene with not much activity, Loeb’s presentation inserts an underpinning of tension, a sense of threat. On the whole, the overall look is natural until it requires a need for oversaturation, hurling the audience into a hypercolored nightmare, such as the scene between Jeremiah and Mandy. Already staged by Cosmatos as a dream-like meeting of level individuals, the scene is a luminous purple-red, shifting to green as a representation the ripples in the air make as they each move. Then, as Jeremiah explains his believed purpose to Mandy, the camera holds on Jeremiah’s face, subtly and slowly contorting into Mandy’s face, before switching back and transforming again over and again. The combination of colors and direction make a scene, potentially terrifying on paper, into something transcendent.
Further setting the mood is the transcendent score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, who passed away in February of 2018. Oscillating between driving, pulse-pounding rhythms (“Forging The Beast”) and beautiful, soulful melodies (“Children Of The New Dawn”), the music is the second most important compositional element of Mandy. If the cinematography and design suggest mood and intent, Jóhannsson’s score solidifies it, bringing to vivid life the notion that everything the audience experiences is a touch apart from grounded reality. Revenge tales are a dime a dozen in cinema, but the score makes Mandy feel like an epic – a glorious adventure of heavy metal, demons, and blood.
Mandy may entrance with its sights and sounds and its methodical direction and narrative, but it wouldn’t work without strong performances from its cast. Roache is terrifying as Jeremiah, a man clearly filled with false bravado and a loose grip on reality. He’s able to convey the deep desire, confusion, pain, and anger that consumes the cult leader. Riseborough ensures the audience views Mandy as far more than a victim through subtle gestures and line delivery; an essential aspect to elevate the role beyond narrative catalyst. It’s Cage, however, that audiences will remember most. An actor with his fair share of memorable performances that track from award-winning high art to the grindhouse, Mandy offers Cage an opportunity to remind audiences of his wealth of talent. With scant few lines of dialogue, Red is formed from his actions and reactions and Cage easily conveys a man pushed beyond his limits of reason. As for the remaining cast of characters, their presence truly serves no greater purpose than adding fuel to the phantasmagorical elements the cinematography and score cultivate. The cultists are just fodder for Red’s rage and the Black Skulls, while a force of disturbing malevolence, are no match for a man with nothing to lose.
Everything about Costmatos’s Mandy makes an impression. The scenes are beautifully composed and colored, the music is mesmerizing, and the performances elate, even as they devastate. More than a tale of cultists, demons, and vengeance, it’s the journey of an innocent soul as it’s ripped from the corporeal plane, torn asunder, and reconstructed as something that must feed on fire and blood. As though lifted from the pages of your favorite fantasy novel, Mandy is the real, phantasmagorical deal and shouldn’t be missed.
For interested parties, there’s a special one-night event on September 13th at limited theaters across the county in which a Q&A with Nicolas Cage follows the screening. Find ticketing information at the Mandy website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.