|Nicolas Cage in MANDY.|
The new horror/thriller MANDY is perhaps the most esoteric and artistic B-movie ever made. You have to hand it to its director Panos Cosmatos who has polished this B with an exquisite sense of craft that is usually seen in A-list fare. MANDY has buckets of blood, outrageous violence, and a Nicolas Cage performance where he bays at the moon, but damn, if it isn’t gorgeous. Your mouth may gape at how incredible the movie’s imagery is if you can stop it from laughing long enough.
Indeed, this film can be quite the howler. The plot, about a man who goes insane after his wife is murdered by a religious cult and turns into her avenging angel, starts out being serious. Yet by the end, the movie has become a parody of such films. Late in the game, Cage, as the vengeful spouse, is being stabbed in his chest by one of the bad guys and he spits at him, “Hey! That’s my favorite shirt!” What are we to make of all this? Is the movie comic, serious, an homage, or a riff? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Cosmatos is doing all those things here – grindhouse, funhouse, and arthouse.
|Andrea Riseborough in MANDY.|
Cosmatos, son of TOMBSTONE director George P. Cosmatos, clearly approached this material with a desire to make it more than trash. That why he fills every frame with gorgeous imagery, haunting sound design, and vivid characterizations that rise far above the story. Some of his technique is so gorgeous that it makes even the ugly quite beautiful. As a body is burned alive in a suspended sack, slow-motion renders the victim’s writhing into something poetic. The soaring score by the late, great Johann Johannsson makes even the killing rampage in the last act feel important. Even the animated visions that Red Miller (Cage) has which drive him towards his vengeance startle with their artistry. (They reminded me of the feature cartoon HEAVY METAL from 1981.)
Indeed, the film has a very 80’s feel to it, and the film even takes place during that decade. Early in the movie, President Reagan’s voice pours out of Red’s truck radio. The 40thPOTUS sounds off on the pornography industry, but Red turns off the speech as if foreshadowing his rejection of propriety later in the film. Cosmatos even renders his film stock with some of the same retro look that appeared in homages to the 80’s like the horror movie IT FOLLOWS and Netflix’s sci-fi series STRANGER THINGS.
|Linus Roache in MANDY.|
Cosmatos both is predictable and outrageous in his film, sometimes within the same scenes. He pours on the blood like you’d expect in a revenge film, but he also pours on filters and color gels to give the whole shebang a dream-like feel. Cosmatos casts Cage, and he’s done this kind of shit many times before, but then the director turns around and casts the esteemed likes of Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache, so is he offering an artistic move with every crass one? It seems so. He may be playing in the world of pulp, but such choices lift the material.
Roach seems positively liberated by his role as the villain Jeremiah Sand, a religious cult leader who’s half Brian Wilson, half Charles Manson. Roach is utterly daring in the part, blabbering on comedically, raising his voice to octaves unheard in the likes of previous credits like HOMELAND and LAW & ORDER. He even prances around fully nude. The actor seems liberated by the part of this self-absorbed prick, and he’s both terrifying and hilarious.
As Mandy, the title character whom Sand has a chance encounter with and becomes obsessed, Riseborough is both fawn and tiger. Her sensitive delivery and gently sensuality with Red suggests a strange yet deep bond between two lonely eccentrics, and her dismissal of Sand when he kidnaps her is shockingly brutal. She howls at his naked come-on, and the rejection seals her doom.
Riseborough wears a black wig here, and her large eyes seem even more enormous the way Cosmatos lights her face. At times, she suggests a Manson girl with her hippie vibe and spaced-out facial expressions. Mandy is enigmatic, and Riseborough ensures that we never quite get a hold on her what with her sly hesitations in her line readings. Such caution suggests a fear of speaking and the scar on Mandy’s face seems to point to some abuse in her past. Was she punished for her honesty with her father? It would explain her utter rejection of the controlling Sand.
As the cult leader punishes Mandy for her rejection of him, a tied-up Red is forced to watch the horrifying violence. It drives him over the edge, and thus, the film goes with it. After that, it’s all about throats being slit and heads being lopped off as Red seeks his revenge. The arthouse stylings remain, but they seem too elegant for a film where one victim’s severed throat spews enough blood onto Red’s face that it’s utterly comical, like a college plebe projectile vomiting during rush.
Cage also sails way over the top, and the scene where he goes into a vodka binging rage in the bathroom has to be seen to be believed. It’s all done in one long take, and the Oscar-winning actor could be inviting Golden Raspberry consideration as he froths about, but at least it goes with the excesses of violence all around him. Indeed, such extravagance is fun up to a point, but then you wonder if there’s really any point to all of this. By the time Red is forging his own Medieval sword into a weapon out of GAME OF THRONES, you may be wondering if the filmmakers are laughing at us for sticking with them through such craziness.
By the end of MANDY, the story has gone exactly where you knew it would, and Red passes the point of no return. He mows down his enemies as quickly as he mows down trees in the opening scene establishing him as a lumberjack. Yet, even to the last frame, Cosmatos infuses it all with genuine craft and imagination. He almost makes it into art. Almost. At the very least, he will encourage an audience to take a look at what he’ll do next. Let’s hope he applies such talent to material worthier of it.