Closing out this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, Pantos Cosmatos’ Mandy is, in my opinion, the best film that screened at the festival this summer. The Canadian filmmaker’s second feature (after his criminally overlooked Beyond the Black Rainbow) is not especially easy viewing and unquestionably not for all tastes, but Mandy is an extraordinary film no less — one touched with moments of crazed inspiration and imagery that reaches beyond language to something primal and original. And while I can’t guarantee you will like it, Mandy will no doubt blow your mind, kick your ass, and burn in your subconscious long after the credits roll.
Cosmatos has gone on record to say that his 2010 debut film, Beyond the Black Rainbow (a brilliant pastiche of 1970s sci-fi and horror), was inspired by his childhood obsession with the VHS box art of horror movies he wasn’t allowed to watch when he was a young boy. Mandy feels like a companion piece to Black Rainbow, if only more self-aware, and features a strong serving of heavy metal iconography and Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged. If a bloody, hallucinogenic nightmare featuring gooey practical effects and a chainsaw-wielding Nicolas Cage sounds like your cup of tea, then Mandy is a film you might want to see.
Telling the story of a lumberjack on a quest for revenge against a cult of religious fanatics, Mandy is set around an isolated cabin located in the Pacific Northwest in 1983 A.D. Red Miller (Nicholas Cage) and his wife, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), lead a loving and peaceful life. Red chops down trees for a living, while Mandy works at a nearby gas station. They spend most of their downtime together cuddling, watching movies, drawing, and reading fantasy novels in their isolated home. When the sadistic ex-folk singer and leader of the Children of the Dawn cult, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), drives through town and sees Mandy walking by, he decides he will do whatever it takes to have her. It doesn’t take long before his group targets Mandy, kidnaps her, and makes her a sacrifice to their twisted ideology, leading Red on a quest for vengeance.
Mandy is essentially split into two halves. When the title card appears and Mandy is no longer in the picture, prepare to strap yourself in for one hell of a ride. It is here at the 60-minute mark that Mandy shifts gears to become a psychotropic horror show propelled by geysers of blood and gruesome violence that will leave some spectators running for the exit. The film’s second half easily fits the revenge-flick template, as Cage’s character will spend the next hour tracking those who’ve wronged him — starting with the mutant motorcycle gang, and then proceeding through the ranks of Jeremiah’s followers. One by one, he picks them off in over-the-top action, sometimes using a chainsaw, other times a crossbow, often a self-forged battle axe, and sometimes using just his bare hands to crush his opponents to death. “You’re a vicious snowflake!” he laughs, right before slicing a biker’s neck.
The second hour of Mandy unfolds like a fever dream, filled with strange scenes like Red stopping to watch a full-length commercial parody for something called Cheddar Goblin Mac ‘n’ Cheese, and a fight scene with a mutant biker where an adult film plays in the background. At times it looks like a Heavy Metal album cover come to life, and often it looks, sounds, and feels like a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Mandy wears its many horror and sci-fi influences on its sleeve (The Evil Dead, Hellraiser, Italian Giallo), and the filmmakers go out of their way to push the envelope and shock audiences. I guess you can say it’s the stuff midnight screenings are made for. No doubt the second half is what most people will be talking about long after they leave the cinema, but the deliberately paced, mesmerizing, and quiet first half (which is probably the closest anyone has come to capturing a truly Lynchian vibe) is really the bleeding heart of the pic. The first section is best described as a love letter to Mandy, and Andrea Riseborough pretty much steals the show. She is haunting, endearing, and mesmerizing all at once — and when Mandy is kidnapped by the cult of pseudo-hippies, her absence is truly felt.
There’s an extraordinary transitional sequence about midway through Mandy that I suspect cinephiles will be including in their lists of best cinematic moments of 2018. A bloodied, beaten, and heartbroken Red (wearing only white briefs and a sweat-stained sweater with a tiger on it) stumbles into the bathroom, pours a bottle of vodka over his wounds (and the rest, down his throat), and proceeds to growl through his pain (both physical and emotional). For about five minutes the camera doesn’t cut away as we watch Nicholas Cage scream uncontrollably in rage — his face coated in blood, sweat, and tears. The booze-chugging scene is the stuff of legends, and destined to become one of the all-time great “Cage Rage” moments. It’s a scene that will have many laughing uncomfortably, yet it’s an incredibly heartbreaking moment — as crazy as things get, there’s a profound sadness in Mandy. Like many revenge stories, Mandy is, after all, about a man dealing with grief and trying to regain control of his life. But what makes this story different is that Mandy is also a love story.
When Panos Cosmatos approached Nicolas Cage to appear in his sophomore feature film, he originally wanted Cage for the Jeremiah character, but the 54-year-old actor told him he was far more interested in playing his nemesis, a man devastated by the loss of his wife. It sure would have made an interesting film to see Cage play the maniacal cult leader instead, but I also can’t help but think it would also be a lesser film. You see, the character of Red is a role which allows the actor to explore both sides of his talent in equal measures and Cage is so perfectly suited for the role, that this might be his best performance in over a decade.
Storywise, there’s not a lot to write about, but Mandy is visually stunning thanks to DP Benjamin Loeb’s incredible work. Although most of the film was shot using 75mm and 50mm lenses, Loeb also made great use of a telephoto lens in order to gradually make each scene feel more and more claustrophobic. Nicolas Cage plays a character named Red, and so it is not a coincidence that the colour red bleeds across almost every frame, making it incredibly unsettling. Meanwhile, Cosmatos employs almost every cinematic trick, from swooping camera shots to psychedelic imagery to colorful filters to strobe lights — adding a barrage of prosthetic effects courtesy Astron 6, and even two brief animated sequences by Paris-based Banjo Studio. There’s an incredible cross-fade between a close up of Mandy and Jeremiah during a pivotal scene that will send shivers down your spine, and an acid trip that provides the best jump scare of any movie at Fantasia this year. Also, pay special attention to how the color palette shifts between how Jeremiah sees things to how Mandy sees the world. It’s a disorienting, almost hypnotizing effect, and is aided by the synth-heavy score from Icelandic composer Johann Johannson (who sadly died in February this year). If Mandy is the heart of the film, Johannson’s score is arguably the film’s very soul. It’s that damn good!
The revenge film is an over-saturated genre, but Mandy is in a class of its own. It’s safe to say no one’s ever made a revenge film quite like it. This is experimental genre filmmaking at its very best. It’s not for the faint-hearted and should be approached with caution — but if you don’t mind the copious amounts of bloodshed, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Expertly directed and superbly conceived, Mandy is an astonishing achievement that packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch. With only two films into his career, Panos is poised to become one of the boldest filmmaking talents of his generation.
Did I mention there’s a killer appearance from Bill Duke?
– Ricky D
“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones in my head and rock ’n’ roll me when I’m dead.”