Sometimes you watch a movie and instantly know it’s something people are going to watch and discuss from this moment in history forward. Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy is exactly that and we absolutely loved it.
On the surface, Mandy is a very straightforward story. A logger named Red (Nicolas Cage) finds his simple life torn apart when he and his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), are attacked by a cult, and he goes on a murderous rampage. But Cosmatos—coming off the trippy Beyond the Black Rainbow—is not a surface filmmaker. Like a painter with a canvas, that plot is just the base level. On top of it, layers upon layers are added, thematically, visually, and sonically. The resulting film is sumptuous and, somehow, almost delicious.
How can a film be “delicious,” you ask? Mandy is so evocative and colourful, such a feast for the eyes and ears, it really approaches that. Cosmatos and his cinematographer Benjamin Loeb have created a prismatic, lush film. Every frame looks like it was created with a dozen colour filters to give it a unique, almost tangible, hue. One frame will be bright blue. The next, deep red. Later, light orange, purple, and green show through, and there’s just a sense that, upon multiple viewings, many deeper meanings can be read into the specific choices of the colours in each scene. And even if they can’t, they look absolutely gorgeous and help drive the story, especially in multiple long takes where we’re left to really think about what we’re watching for long periods of time.
The score, by late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (to whom the film is dedicated), adds another crucial layer to the film. Mandy doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in it, so for most of the film, the moody, synth-heavy music stands in for the emotions and thoughts of the characters. It’s effective and intense, but also kind of toe-tapping, and will make you miss Jóhannsson (who also scored Arrival, The Theory of Everything, and Sicario) that much more.
None of that would matter, though, if the story and performances weren’t up to the technical mastery of Mandy. Thankfully, they are.
In a way, Mandy feels like a milestone in the career of Nicolas Cage. After rising to become one of the most famous and critically acclaimed actors of a generation, in recent years he’s dialed back his mainstream output for lighter fare that really buys into his manic mystique. With Mandy, he not only embraces that persona but fuses it with the intense emotion and range that made him a household name. It’s maybe the quintessential 21st century Cage performance: a guttural, impressive, focused turn that anchors and elevates the movie.
Andrea Riseborough, despite being the title character, doesn’t have as much to do as her counterpart, but her performance is no less magical. Through her, Mandy is a mystery. She has a calm, innocent, almost ethereal presence that makes you feel like she’s better than all of us, knows it, but sympathizes with us. That’s primarily conveyed through Riseborough’s eyes, but also her calming voice and stoic movements, not to mention an impressive wardrobe of rock n’ roll t-shirts.
Then there are the villains, headed up by cult leader Jeremiah (played by Vikings’ actor Linus Roache). Most of them are one-note but still manage to be creepy as shit. However, Roache has more to do and is a revelation. He’s come a long way from playing Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins, and here, the actor bares all (literally) as the cult leader who has so much going on behind his gaze that you understand why people simultaneously follow and love him, but also fear and despise him.
Oh, and did I mention that Mandy is also fucking badass? This is a revenge story, after all, and as the film moves along with its patient, consistent pace, eventually Cage does get to murder people in some very memorable ways: using an incredible custom ax, engaging in a chainsaw fight (that’s two people, with chainsaws, fighting), and ensuring several other gloriously bloody exits.
If anything, my biggest gripe with Mandy is that Cosmatos doesn’t go far enough in that section of the movie. After the brutal suffering in the first half of the film, the comeuppance is not quite as satisfying as it could be. At times, it even feels a little rushed in comparison to everything else and there are a few logical hiccups that occur as Red is on the hunt for the evil cult. This doesn’t really take away from the larger story, but in a movie that’s so precisely put together, it is a tiny bit of a letdown.
And yet, with that minor asterisk, Mandy is a triumph. It’s a wonderful blend of art house aesthetic with mainstream sensibilities. A rich film that leaves you excited, but also mentally engaged. Hours after seeing it I’m still not exactly sure what, if anything, Cosmatos is trying to say. Maybe this is a character’s metaphorical journey to Hell. Maybe it’s kind of a death metal song brought to life (there are literal face meltings, after all). Maybe (in all honesty, probably) it’s much, much more than that. Nevertheless, Mandy rules, and you should check it out.
Mandy opens in Australia on September 21.