Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Jesus Freak Season
Seven years after Italian director Panos Cosmatos made his feature film debut with Beyond the Black Rainbow, he returns with Mandy; a film loaded with blood-soaked insanity with Nicolas Cage in the driver’s seat. Taking place in 1983, somewhere in the Shadow Mountains (the Mojave Desert, eastern California), Cage portrays a lumberjack named Red Miller. He’s married to Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)); an artist, obscure conversationalist, and convenience store attendant. The couple lives in the middle of the forest secluded from everyone and everything. A chance encounter with a religious cult known as the Children of the New Dawn and their leader Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache, Batman Begins) sparks a rabid infatuation within Jeremiah and they abduct Mandy. They butcher her in front of Red and leave him shattered and broken with nothing to live for and nothing to lose. Left alone in his underwear with crusted blood around his mouth and wrists, Red angrily swigs from a bottle of vodka In his gold-colored bathroom, screams in frustration, and swears revenge on the “Jesus freaks” that wronged him.
A Revenge Story
Mandy begins with a simple quote and the reverberating guitars of an Icelandic composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s, final film scores.
When I die
Bury me deep
Lay two speakers at my feet
Wrap some headphones
Around my head
And rock and roll me
When I’m dead
The action-horror film has an opening title sequence that showcases the greenery of the forests of the Shadow Mountains (filming apparently took place in Belgium). Vibrant hues of red and orange bounce off the stunning artwork Red’s wife Mandy concocts while he’s off murdering trees with chainsaws and smoking cigarettes to fill the void. Red and Mandy have these insane discussions that seem like they would be perfect in a film about potheads being stoned out of their minds in their basement while the world passes them by. Planetary rants with Red confessing his love for Galactus and a childhood story about Mandy’s father forcing children to kill what she refers to as starlings. Have you ever heard Nicolas Cage tell a knock-knock joke? Mandy’s got you covered there, too. This introduction to Red and Mandy mostly shows how isolated they are from the city, from neighbors, from noise, and from any sort of assistance if anything was to go wrong.
Linus Roache is this beastly incarnate of the unsettling and unhinged qualities you’d find in the likes of a serial killer. The Children of the New Dawn live to serve Jeremiah who they believe somehow overshadows the likes of Jesus Christ. Colors seem to begin representing different things from here on out in the film with deep blue representing slumber, glowing red depicting danger and highlighting the monsters in the film, and flashing green symbolizing otherworldly objects such as the ocarina and the dagger. Jeremiah calls on Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy, Peaky Blinders) to retrieve Mandy for him. Brother Swan uses an ocarina to call upon these monsters on 4-wheelers known as the Black Skulls. These monsters draw inspiration from Hellraiser’s Cenobites and The Plague from Hobo with a Shotgun. They wear leather, require blood sacrifices for their services, and like to drink chunky, gray, hallucinogenic mayonnaise out of a jar. Circling back around to the Children of the New Dawn, Jeremiah and his followers have this Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Martha Marcy May Marlene quality to them that consistently make every appearance of theirs uncomfortable.
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Jeremiah’s desires are simple; for Mandy to simply melt at the sight of his genitalia while they listen to obscure vinyl records. Jeremiah’s most reliable female devotee known as Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré, This Must Be the Place) loads Mandy up on some crazy drugs before her encounter with Jeremiah, which takes place at a dinner table that feels like a direct homage to the dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The “cherry on top” sequence starts with some mysterious eye drops and finishes with the sting of a giant wasp-type insect that’s pulled out of some sort of amber jelly. After Mandy declines Jeremiah’s sexual offer in the most offensive way imaginable, he momentarily strokes his member in anger and then proceeds to torture her in front of Red who is restrained by barbed wire.
Nic Cage’s performance is reminiscent of Tom Hardy’s in Mad Max: Fury Road; Cage has so few lines in the film but his performance never fails to captivate. Cage shows what feels like genuine emotion as he watches his wife die before his eyes with tears welling up in his eyes and rolling down his mangled cheeks. His agony is further fueled by the meltdown in his bathroom. The gold color is used a handful of times while Cage is by himself on-screen usually feeling like a sanctuary or safe moment for the Red character. Cage gets so much across in Mandy solely by grunting or a facial expression; it’s impressively mesmerizing and some of his best work in years.
The interior shots of the car while Red is driving are incredibly unique. The way the forest Red is barreling through flies by is visually unlike any other fast car sequence. The camera placement in the car has never felt so open as you seem to be able to see through every window of the car all at the same time. Red begins to dream about his wife after her death including her decomposing before him, but these dreams are animated in a Heavy Metal kind of animation complete with blood, nudity, and overwhelming strangeness you can’t find anywhere else.
The lair of the Black Skulls sequence is intense including one of them inhaling a mountain of cocaine off of a table while penetrative porn plays in the background. Cage sees this as an opportunity to make his screen-time even more memorable by bathing in the blood of someone’s severed carotid artery, snorting coke off of a broken shard of glass, performing a couch flip, snapping someone's neck, and this is all while complaining that someone ripped his favorite T-shirt. This hasn’t even covered the insane axe that Red forges himself, Red dipping into that gray hallucinogenic mayonnaise mentioned earlier, or the spectacular chainsaw fight that likely brought you to this film in the first place.
Panos Cosmatos has figured out a way to refine the abstract weirdness that intrigued us all in Beyond the Black Rainbow and craft it into something terrifying, hypnotizing, and incredible with Mandy. At its core, Mandy is a simple revenge tale about a man gaining vengeance for the death of his wife but its presentation is so visually unusual with gorgeous cinematography, horrific bloodshed, and a raw and liberated performance from Nicolas Cage that is essentially a caged beast equipped with a crossbow and a thirst for blood let loose on those who poked and prodded him long enough to invoke an unquenchable wrath that only gains traction, accelerates at a frenetic pace, and gets exponentially more erratic the longer the beast is out of its cage. Mandy is unlike any other film in 2018 and that, along with Nic Cage tapping into something phenomenally extraordinary, is the main reason this action horror film is one of the best efforts of the year.
© 2018 Chris Sawin