On mad love, bad trips, and how Mandy frames the psychological distortions of revenge
Mandy RLJE Films
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Screenplay: Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Olwen Fouéré, Ned Dennehy, Line Pillet, Cheddar Goblin, Richard Brake and Bill Duke
Rated R / 2 hours, 1 minute / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Revenge doesn't work in real life; only in dreams. An event that would propel a desire for revenge exists only in nightmares. Where murder is not an act of violence but a cosmic rupture - one that can be repaired only in blood. An equal act of destruction. An existential atonement in the depths of hell.
Panos Cosmatos' Mandy understands the transcendental nature of death and vengeance as well as any movie I've seen on the subject. Understands that the way to tap into the true anguish of losing and avenging a loved one - a soulmate even - is to present the experience on its own plane of existence. In this case, one consumed in a hot neon glow, primordial reds and baleful blues, the hallucinogenic backdrop for a spiritual apocalypse. Those familiar with Cosmatos' directorial debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow, will instantly recognize the buzzing, trance-like throb of Mandy's slowly propulsive mood, and it's a pacing style that uniquely captures the gridlocked state of mind of the man at the center of it. The result is a psychedelic blast of emotional annihilation and righteous fury that gives Nicolas Cage's earnest madness its best showcase in years.
They have a simple life - that would be Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) - and seemingly no want for anyone but each other. He's a lumberjack and she's an artist (in addition to her day job manning the register at a gas station), and they come home each night to their modest home in the mountainside, out of earshot from anyone else. Their physical comfort speaks magnitudes about their relationship; past traumas and personal demons bind them together. It's a lucky thing they found each other.
When Mandy is abducted by a roving cult of New Age hippies, led by the megalomaniacal would-be prophet Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), Red has to watch as his beloved is tied up and burned alive in front of him. Cosmatos' wisdom shines through in the depiction of the experience - the close-up of Cage's face soaked in blood and tears, illuminated by the flames in front of him; afterward the naked explosion of his grief in a long, un-scored bathroom scene. His visual and tonal aesthetic proves wiser still, allowing the film to remain inside the character's anguish for the duration; the murder is not a memory but a permanent injury, a psychological amputation.
Revenge movies are often eager to get to the point; avengers are often all too excited about their new role. As if a reason to go rogue and drop bodies is what they really needed - really wanted - to give their life meaning. In Mandy, even with the pyrotechnics, pulpy color and enthusiastic indulgence in the sexiness of Red's weaponry, the atmospheric tenor is one of a sad, godless lament. Red isn't just haunted by an event that took place; he has to engulf himself in the very flames that extinguished her in order to do what needs to be done. (Though there's a suggestion that Red is a military vet, there's also a clear distinction between his domesticated self in the early scenes - the mild-mannered guy who makes corny jokes and likes to watch TV and stare swooningly into his girlfriend's eyes - and the crazy-eyed, possessed vigilante he has to become later on.)
Especially considering the familiarity of the territory he's working in - avenged women, vengeful men, religious cults - Cosmatos has very specific ideas about how to approach it all, the exact impressions he wants to make with every supporting character and each visual motif. And that's very much what Mandy is - a collection of haunting impressions and portraits. Of fixation, of predation, desperation, suffering, madness, rage. The script, co-written by Aaron Stewart-Ahn, cuts out all the extraneous noise and explication, allowing Cosmatos and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb to linger on faces and silhouettes, framed against a dazzling and perpetually foreboding neon haze. Unconscious thoughts and urges pass between characters instead of dialogue; entire conversations take place in the space of a few slow zooms and a couple of unbroken stares.
Even the film's most overt scene of exposition works nicely, with Red going to an old friend - played in a perfect one-scene cameo by the one and only Bill Duke - to stock up on weapons (a crossbow!) and pick his brain for some information on the cult he's hunting. Duke's character, Caruthers - he's the kind of guy who knows things. A guy who listens. And remembers. He'll pass on the information when he can. Red's in luck, such as it is. Turns out he's going after the worst of the worst. An old cult that took some bad LSD and found a way to commune with forces a lot stronger than acid.
And so Red sets out on a bad trip of his own. Just so it's not unclear that Mandy, despite its slow dreamlike qualities, still brings it, in the traditional sense, let me just point out that there is a chainsaw duel in this movie. Nicolas Cage and a bad guy swing chainsaws at each other until one of them dies. (Via chainsaw.) The chainsaw blades are also, might I add, of noticeably different lengths, and key shots introduce those chainsaw-blade lengths - in an upright position via side profile. What I'm saying is that this this movie - with all its suffering and agony and fear and anger - is also a hell of a lot of fun, right down to its playful phallic demonstrations and repudiations. (Then again, in a sad opposite-side of that coin, it is Jeremiah Sand's humiliation regarding his own manhood that helps set the film's savage events in motion in the first place. So there's that.)
The sting of death is permanent, and revenge is no satisfaction - no scratch for the remaining itch. That permanence is matched by the deliberate, liquid grace of Cosmatos' style, which does not want us to forget. Anything. The film's view of revenge, I believe, is not that it's cathartic - an unforgettable late shot of Cage's ecstatic, blood-stained smile notwithstanding - but an unwanted, necessary evil. Hell itself co-opted for the sake of righteous justice. And even if it's not necessary ... well, someone has to speak for the departed.
This movie would make for a fascinating double-bill with The Fountain - both operatic tales of mad love and madder devotion. In the Aronofsky film, it was about saving a beloved woman rather than avenging her; but in Mandy, the avenging almost feels like salvation.