Should I start with “Cheddar Goblin”? Or does that warrant its own article?
Mandy is the second film from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, his follow up to the 2010 film Beyond the Black Rainbow. It is a hazy dream of a film—a dream or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. At times, it spins inside an LSD vision alongside its drug-addled characters. Other times, it is a ’70s-inspired exploitation splatter flick. On both accounts, Cosmatos imbues the rural forest landscape with a fantasy quality. Even as fantastical elements are granted real-world explanations, the characters feel as if they are trapped in a psychedelic snowglobe of cosmic mayhem.
It’s pretty badass.
The eponymous Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) lives with her partner Red (Nicolas Cage), a grizzled lumberjack with a penchant for terrible jokes, in a cottage deep within the forests near the Shadow Mountains. She sketches drawings, reads fantasy novels, and is fascinated by astronomy. Together, the couple lounges through their nights watching B-movies.
Their isolated existence, though, is shattered by a tiny fringe cult, the leader of which (Linus Roache) takes a liking to Mandy. With the help of a Cenobite-resembling biker gang, the cult kidnap Mandy and Red. From there, the fan is struck by the proverbial scat.
Like a rollercoaster, the narrative of Mandy clicks slowly up a dramatic incline, before rapidly tumbling down into bloody chaos. It is a parabolic arc that could be bisected into two distinct narrative sections. The first hour consists of deliberately-paced, ethereal imagery that is not always easy to decode at face value. The second hour steps on the gas and barrels forth into the bloody darkness.
The two-half structure also provides two distinct character perspectives. We begin the film on Cage’s Red coming home after a hard day’s work. But the first half of the film belongs to Mandy. It is not until the second half that Red has any real form of agency in the narrative.
While the somewhat radical shift from one half to the other may jar viewers out of the film’s atmosphere, both have their own pros and cons. The first half utilizes inventive filmmaking to tell the tragic story of a homey romance ruptured by external forces. The second half is a full-throated (and characteristically bonkers) Nicolas Cage performance set to the tone of a splatter film by way of revenge film.
Neither side leans into plotting. Most of the film is image-based examinations of broken masculinity and brute force. It is a revenge story that has been told before, just not in this way. If the style grabs you, then you’re in. If it doesn’t, you’ll be searching for more than the film provides.
The style is dependent on neon colors—particularly reds and purples—dreamy dissolves, and superimposed images. The color palette, while vibrant, is repetitive to the point of becoming monochrome. The dreamy transitions, juxtaposed with more sharp transitions that lead to unexpected modes, make for unpredictable storytelling in spite of the conventional premise.
And the superimpositions…oh boy. In the most enthralling scene (with the exception of, of course, the “Cheddar Goblin”), superimposed faces are used for an uncanny valley-riding wave of discomfort. Given the scene is an exceedingly uncomfortable seduction by way of trite and self-obsessed monologue, this discomfort is the perfectly unexpected amplification to 11 that the scene needs. That the trite self-obsession is deflated in the most elegantly simple way is all the better.
The inelegance of the second half does take away some of the power from these fascinating technical choices in the first half. This stark contrast makes for engaging and unpredictable storytelling, but once the film becomes about Cage giving a Cagey performance the set pieces become repetitive.
This is not to say that this is a bad Cagey performance. But Cage in a very ’80s-looking bathroom chugging vodka, oscillating between sobs and shouts, is a different sort of entertainment value than watching Riseborough’s quiet, mesmerizing, and ultimately superior performance. The two don’t really mesh.
This is all to say that Mandy is not perfect. It doesn’t want to be, either. The messiness of its climactic second hour is intentional, and this yields some fun set pieces. As much as this might clash with its ethereal beginnings, both provide intriguing filmmaking from an authentic creative voice. Cosmatos is certainly a director to watch, particularly for those who enjoy stylish genre films.