The mythological still channels our innermost desires. Myths crystalize what we wish to be, or how we would like to divide the world in terms of good and evil, with a simplicity that is crystalline. This same mythic power fuels Mandy, a wild and haunting cinematic creation. A hallucinatory film with the logic of a nightmare, it manages to combine camp, horror and moments of profound drama in a bizarre yet beautiful canvas. Director Panos Cosmatos announces himself here as an original talent on par with other recent masters of trippy cinema like Nicolas Winding Refn or Guy Maddin. Yet while Cosmatos may bask in the kind of outrageous, visceral creativity more common in post-modern experimentation, his film is a myth forged out of deep fires. It is not an exaggeration to call it Homeric, for it is a journey that feels classic even as it takes place in a modern world. Completing this film’s strange power is Nicolas Cage, who delivers a performance of astounding fury, as if he were a fanatic engaged in holy war. There is a lot of blood in Mandy, as well as chainsaws, burning buildings, drugs and even animation, but it’s never shallow or stale.
The movie is set in 1984 in a wilderness identified as “The Shadow Mountains.” A logger named Red Miller (Cage) lives with his beloved, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), in a cabin home beneath cosmic skies. While Red works in the forest, Mandy manages a small shop while reading fantasy novels. One day while walking home she catches the eye of a cult leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), who summons forth a legion of demonic four wheel drivers to kidnap Mandy and tie up Red. Taken to a strange hideout, Mandy is drugged by Jeremiah but refuses his advances. Rebuffed, the prophet takes revenge by burning her alive in a sack right before Red’s eyes. Full of absolute and vengeful rage, Red escapes, arms himself and prepares to track down Jeremiah and his evil cronies to, naturally, slaughter them all.
Indeed, dear reader, the film itself is just as insane as the above description — insane but brilliant. Mandy almost defies categorization. Cosmatos forms part of the recent wave of directors obsessed with dipping into the pool of 1980s camp, even using title fonts in that vintage style so prominent in shows like Stranger Things. The music by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, who also scored the atmospheric landscapes of Arrival, is a nod to 80s synth and even metal. Electronic atmospherics combine with burning guitar chords. Cosmatos, who is in his 40s, has travelled into his memory banks before in search of inspiration. His previous film, 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, was also designed in the textures of a 1980s midnight movie. Wandering now in a postmodern landscape, artists like Cosmatos appear to be holding on ever so tightly to their childhood memories, while using them to conjure visions more than apt for this dark 21stcentury. Cosmatos embraces his love for nostalgia while going beyond it. The furnishings of this film may be from 1984, yet it is a world to itself.
Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb crafts a hypnotic dreamscape for the director, filming the world of Mandy like a fever dream fantasy. The color palette and textures, rich in reds, shadows and skies full of planets and sumptuous firmament, look like something out of Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the last survivors of the classic surrealist tradition. Like Jodorowsky, Cosmatos is utilizing the surreal and fantastical possibilities of cinema to create an experience both visceral and meaningful. In his 1970 classic acid western, El Topo, Jodorowsky follows a black-clad gunslinger as he embarks on a zen-like journey through blood-soaked, hallucinatory landscapes. The aesthetic of the western is fused with an occult sumptuousness that can range from debauched to spiritual. In his follow-up, the even grander The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky fills nearly every frame with dreamlike, piercing imagery. Frogs dressed as Aztecs and Spaniards enact the conquest of Mexico, fascist troops march with crucified and skinned dogs, and a capitalist factory manufactures weapons and cosmetics.
In this same tradition, Cosmatos uses his own obsessions to craft a tale of revenge. He paces the first act of the film with an immersive, eerie tone worthy of David Lynch. It is a world beyond this one, not even nostalgic, but a fantasy creation with an 80s vibe. Some of the imagery also owes to the pop art of the period and right before it. Fantasy and rugged mythology was prevalent in the world of heavy metal, with bands like Iron Maiden and Dio featuring album covers that looked taken from artworks by Frank Frazetta. Frazetta defined the pop aesthetic of myth, painting album covers, paperback covers and comic book posters like a deranged Romantic obsessed with Vikings, barbarians and Valkyries. His rich sense of detail, combined with a love for the body as a chiseled sculpture, was an influence on films like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian. Today artists like Joe Jusko continue the tradition. These influences are mentioned because they are all present in Mandy, with even the title character reading a fantasy paperback with a Frazetta-style cover. The villain, Jeremiah Sand, has the look of some strange, Nordic warlord turned hippie psycho.
But the savage heart of this movie is Nicolas Cage. One of big 1990s action stars (and it must be remembered this man has an Oscar for Leaving Last Vegas), Cage has been getting a lot of smirks this past decade due to some odd choices and plainly bad movies. This actor has gone from the heights of action moviedom, with titles like Face/Off, to starring in an End Times Christian film like Left Behind. But in Mandy he redeems himself. Here he is all vengeance and stirring pathos. He could have gone campy. Instead he takes this fictional character and lets us feel his anguish and despair. There is a moment where he holds Mandy’s dissolving ashes, watching the wind literally carry away her face, and he plays the scene like a character from Greek tragedy. His approach makes the entirety of the film convincing, because he is playing it like a man thrust into terrible chaos, with a psyche reaching its breaking point. The classics always feature masculinity reduced to blind rage or terrible insanity, from the anger of Achilles to the temporary, murderous madness of Ajax. Cage’s approach is appropriate because his is in a mythical role confronted by a suitable villain. Jeremiah Sand is a demented proto-Christian, wearing giant crosses and having a massive cross adorn his citadel, but he talks and operates like an evil warlock. His minions, Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré) and Brother Klopek (Clément Baronnet), look like ragtag characters out of a Bosch painting. Another character, The Chemist (Richard Brakee), looks like a demented scientist from hell. Cosmatos has designed his characters to be almost Dantenean, living in a world always colored like an inferno.
Once Red goes on his quest to avenge Mandy the movie becomes a bloody amalgam of revenge film and supernatural thriller. He fashions a futuristic yet medieval-looking silver axe, he gets a crossbow from a fellow dueler with evil, Caruthers (Bill Duke), who warns Red of evil creatures stalking the area. Where do these four wheel-driving demons come from? It is unclear, as the abrupt presence of evil can be terrifying in its sudden, unforgiving appearance. The monsters snort cocaine (or a substance that looks like it), and when Red kills a few he takes a few snorts himself. The angel of vengeance is now fueled and ready to collect blood. His fury is a pop culture embodiment of the French Revolution’s Robespierre’s insistence that terror must be exercised with virtue. But if the revolutionary is driven by a need to cleanse the earth of oppression, Red’s quest is to avenge his beloved, and by targeting Jeremiah Sand and his demons, he is protecting love. The energy builds up to a heavy metal opera of sorts, as Red decapitates foes, slits throats and cackles as demon blood spills onto his face. Yet Cosmatos never allows the gore to overtake the narrative. Yes, some eyeballs get popped out and heads roll, but Cosmatos never allows the film to get so graphic as to lose its effect. Even when Red finds himself in a chainsaw duel, it’s staged with a gritty grandiosity. Red is not some mere vigilante — he becomes the architect of a holy war.
Recently the box office has been so saturated by sequels, remakes and halfway decent popcorn movies that it is refreshing to see a movie like Mandy. It does not compromise and strives for a beautifully mad originality. Cosmatos reminds us that there are still filmmakers with strange and unique visions. Making a film can be such a difficult and challenging enterprise, that Cosmatos does not want to waste away his opportunities. He understands the privilege of being allowed to share your dreams and nightmares with a receptive audience. With Mandy he has given us a thrilling, subversive symphony, beautifully imagined through pop art memories, raging with fire and blood.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.