There is some kind of undeniable genius to Mandy, the new movie by Panos Cosmatos. The writer-director makes a much-anticipated return after an eight-year wait since his assured, stylish debut Beyond the Black Rainbow. This time, he has a star in the main role, Nicolas Cage, and a more straightforward narrative. Sure to bridge the divide between art house aficionados and action horror fanatics, you would be hard pressed to find a schlockier art film.
The two-hour movie is evenly divided between blissful moments between Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) and Red Miller (Cage). They live in a log cabin in the Pacific Northwest. The year is “1983 A.D.,” the same year as the proceedings in Black Rainbow. As Red, who makes a living as a lumberjack, lies in bed staring into Mandy’s eyes one night, light that appears to be kaleidoscopic flowers bloom over Mandy’s profile. Light is incredibly important in Cosmatos’ films. The blue and red filters in DP Benjamin Loeb’s sharply focused anamorphic lens sets the mood and portends the bruises and blood that lie ahead in Red’s revenge quest rampage after a group of “Jesus freaks” kill Mandy before his helpless eyes. The ominous, throbbing and often effectively eerie original score of synths and strings by the now departed Jóhann Jóhannsson is a knockout work. The film is also dedicated to him.
The titular character isn’t just a cypher of beauty or a plot point personified. Cosmatos, who wrote the script with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, allows for time between the lovers and details in character to flesh out and become sympathetic at a leisurely pace. She works at the counter of a general store and is immersed in a fantasy novel called The Serpent’s Eye, whose narrative we hear in her voice-over as she reads the florid text of a dog-eared paperback in her Black Sabbath T-shirt. She also has a distinct scar on her face. Though younger than Red, she’s a complete and experienced person and the two complete each other charmingly. That she is so violently taken from Red, brings sympathy to Red, and Cage, a fine actor, is allowed long takes to express his anguish in a bloody T-shirt and white briefs that some will have a chuckle at, as it speaks to Cage’s long history in action movies. But it is visceral and authentic feeling rather than hammy.
Cosmatos brings equal attention to detail to capture the sinister forces Red finds himself up against, such as the quartet of shadowy, spiky motorcyclists that emerge from the fog of the primordial landscape when Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), one of the cult followers, blows the “Horn of Abraxas” to summon them. The leader of the cult, Jeremiah Sand (a supremely amped up Linus Roache) had spied Mandy on the road during a ride in the group’s van. He has asked Swan to bring her to him. During his attempt at seduction of Mandy, which includes the playback of a hippy prog-rock record called “Amulet of the Weeping Maze,” which he recorded back in the day, he is revealed as a tightly wound conflict of LSD-addled lust and narcissism with a God complex. Mandy is unmoved. Her punishment is gruesome.
Red’s nightmare quest for revenge is peppered with humor and anger. At one point Red says, “It didn’t make any sense. There were bikers and gnarly psychos,” which speaks to the mystery of the horror he endured and, on another level, Cosmotos’ sly attempt to minimize the artiness of his style, which is filled with incredible flourishes both slick and campy. One defining moment features Red forging his own battle ax. The lens flare sheen on the completed weapon is over-the-top and gorgeous. Cage also gets a chance to spew some rather hilarious and precious one liners to lighten the tension. “You’re a vicious snowflake,” Red tells one of the hissing demon bikers before he does him in.
The plot is indeed threadbare and base, but the style above all will make this film stand for the ages and encourage repeat viewings. During a duel featuring chainsaws, the red taillights of Red’s car on the mountains behind him makes it look as if he is on hell on earth. Hand drawn animations by Emilie Almaida of Mandy after she’s passed represent Red’s nightmares and dreams but also speak to Cosmatos’ dedication to practical effects. Red’s own rage is depicted as a tiger roaring at the sun. From sound design to action sequences — and some plot holes — what you see before you is a modern cult film for the ages.
Mandy runs 121 minutes and is not rated. It plays in our South Florida area starting tonight, Thursday, Sept. 13, in a series of a handful single screenings that will feature a Q&A broadcast with Nicolas Cage after the movie. In Miami-Dade they will happen only at South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach and Regal Kendall Village Stadium 16 IMAX & RPX. In Broward County the special screening only happens at Regal Oakwoood 18 in Hollywood. It then plays O Cinema Wynwood for the weekend of Sept. 21 only. Finally, Coral Gables Art Cinema will show it for one night only on Saturday, Sept. 29, as part of its After Hours series. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. RLJE Films sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.