In my review of Beyond the Black Rainbow last week, I wholeheartedly recognised director Panos Cosmatos as a budding prospect with auteurist sensibilities, even going so far as to compare him to Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. I say budding, because I nonetheless found Cosmatos’ debut to be inherently problematic, despite the evident vision. I was delighted, then, to discover that with his sophomore effort, Mandy, Cosmatos’ unique style comes full circle, delivering a wondrously unflinching, batshit, bloody, stylish film that drew me in much like his debut, but also made a hell of a lot more sense to both head and heart.
Cosmatos is unmistakeably aware of where his influence comes from, so his films ooze ‘80s B-movie vibes, but with an artistic sway that grants far greater meaning to his exaggerated use of colour and filters, which can often amount to no more than stylistic indulgence for many a director. And as such, Cosmatos wisely situates each of his films within this decade for a greater sense of time and place.
Thus, the stage is set and enters Red Miller (Nicholas Cage), a logger living a quiet, secluded life in a wooded cabin with his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). The couple are two souls intertwined by mysterious past tragedies, finding peaceful solace in each other’s love, until one night they are brutally attacked in their home by a cult named Children of the New Dawn (that is deliberately reminiscent of the Manson Family). Its leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), believes God has made everything in the world solely for his pleasure, so seeking to take Mandy for himself following a brief encounter. Made to watch an unspeakable act and left for dead, Red seeks revenge, revealing instances of his past life that he had hoped to leave behind.
Mandy is one the most unsettling representations of madness I have seen in some time. Cosmatos possesses an avid interest in the psychological and proves once again that he can depict a character’s descent into, and arrival at, utter insanity. Like any great screenwriters, Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn are not beholden to wasteful exposition as a means of expressing their characters. Instead, they use deliberate dialogue that is complemented by intriguing cinematography and lighting, while the performances of the actors are left to express more than words of dialogue ever could.
Mandy is also a refreshing assault on traditional narrative structure. While we are offered glimpses into the lives of the lead characters in the opening scenes, most of the first half is dedicated to developing its engagingly three-dimensional villains, namely Roache’s pathological portrayal of Jeremiah, the absolute embodiment of insanity.
In fact, the film is split into chapters, wherein the final chapter, titled “Mandy,” it could be argued, is in fact the actual title roll, only it is over an hour into its two-hour runtime. Cosmatos is almost winking at the audience, stating that this is where the film really begins, and we are granted true insight into a hidden, more animalistic side of Red’s character.
However, that for which I am most impressed is not Cosmatos’ continuously engaging depiction of madness and untraditional storytelling, but that in between the bouts of violence and depravity, he is able to take a step back and explore the more emotional drives behind Red’s character with tragically profound moments, as he too slowly descends into the depths of psychosis, but not without good reason.
With this, I must acknowledge Cage’s performance here. I cannot think of a single film that is as fitting to Cage’s trademark brand of explosive instability as Mandy (not even Face/Off), and for that reason Red Miller could be considered the role of his career. There are other performances from the legendary thespian that can be considered more “Oscar-worthy,” but the fact that this evades the parameters of any awards season, instead allowing Cage to erupt and regress in such a visceral fashion, deserves more credit than any statue could possibly offer.
Cage’s work here is matched in depth and complexity only by Cosmatos’ direction, and because of this Mandy is able to open itself up in ways that Beyond the Black Rainbow never could, delivering an emotional and psychological resonance that is grounded by three-dimensional characters, populating a world of giddily stylish excess and surreal malevolence. All this is testament to Cosmatos’ distinctiveness as a filmmaker, with his unwavering dedication to the imaginary reality of Mandy proving that the mad scientist of cinema’s formula actually works.