You can often judge a Nicolas Cage movie purely on the basis of how frequent and intense his freakout scenes are – as well as how well they fit with the tone of the film in general.
In that sense – as well as in many others – Mandy is an unqualified success. It’s a pretty extreme film from a style and content point of view, but Nicolas Cage has arguably never been more at home with a movie’s general tone.
The story of two outsiders – Red, played by Nicolas Cage, and the eponymous Mandy, played by Andrea Riseborough – living in relative isolation in the Pacific Northwest in 1983, their generally peaceful existence is shattered by the arrival of cult leader Jeremiah Sand, whose plans for Mandy go devastatingly, disturbingly wrong – setting Red on a path of righteous, bloody revenge.
It’s a film that unashamedly draws from and references both pulp novels and the Grindhouse style of 70s and 80s video nasties. Each act is introduced with an animated, retro, pulp novel-style logo; signalling a change in chapter and the gradual shifting of gears into the full on bloody intensity of the final stretch.
The entire film is awash with hallucinatory, hypnotically stylised visuals; shot and enhanced with trippy colours and effects. Director Panos Cosmatos uses a huge variety of techniques (even including animation) to achieve some startling effects; even the less stylistically audacious or colourful frames – of which there are few – are grainy and washed out, giving the air of a classic direct-to-video movie from the 80s. Even in those scenes, during the quieter first act, there’s a sense of unease and unpredictability – which only increases the further we go into the film. The great Bill Duke has a small cameo, with an exposition-laden monologue accompanying a brilliant exchange with Cage about what it is that he’s setting off to hunt.
Though it veers from quiet, soft scenes of gentle – though dark and foreshadowing – conversation between Red and Mandy to disturbing imagery that recalls the horrifically tense ‘dinner’ scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then on to full on, balls to the wall bloody revenge and gory fight scenes, it all seems to fit together into a coherent whole. There’s a veritable book of subtext and allegorical imagery – a lot of which I’m sure I missed upon first viewing, though the religious and phallic symbolism prevalent throughout is far from subtle – and the nightmarish atmosphere of a bad trip gives it an undeniably compelling quality.
The score helps immeasurably in conjunction with the visuals in setting an incredible atmosphere; the late Icelandic composer – who the film is dedicated to, after he tragically passed away shortly before release – Jóhan Jóhannsson’s soundtrack is an astounding piece of work – shifting from soft ambient soundscapes to pulsing synth and harsher metal tracks.
There’s a lot here that lingers in the mind much more than you would expect – especially from a film that takes so many cues from what would normally be thought of as disposable trash – but it’s thanks to the artistic vision of Cosmatos that it carries so much weight. It’s an absolutely astonishing film that – despite some undeniably disturbing and nasty imagery – I found absolutely riveting from start to finish. It’s rare that a one take Cage freakout seems like one of the less extreme scenes in a film, but then Mandy is a film full of extremes. It feels utterly uncompromised or sanitised; it’s a deeply compelling, but often very unpleasant trip to a surreal, pulp-infused world that could only exist on screen.
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