Written by Andrew Busch // Edited by Drew Beyer // Images from IMDb
Mandy (2018), directed by Panos Cosmatos and written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is a dark and grotesque revenge film that begins as a light, sugary dream. As the film opens on a nondescript location someplace near the Shadow Mountains in 1983, the main character Red (Nicolas Cage) works as a logger, while Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) works as a cashier at a nearby gas station. This opener also establishes that two main characters are living a picture-perfect romantic dream while secluded in the idyllic wilderness of the pacific northwest. But with the introduction of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and his outlandish cult of junkies, the pleasant and natural dreamscape where the film begins sharply devolves into a suffocating and vile nightmare filled with gruesome violence and demonic cenobites.
One of strongest aspects of this film is how the score follows this same transition. Co-scored by Randall Dunn and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, the soundtrack unravels throughout the film to match the tonal shift of the plot from quiet and sleepy tracks to strident and sinister. The opening scenes of the film depict Red and Mandy’s relationship through quiet string arrangements and gently swirling synths (Mandy Love Theme). At the same time, later action sequences feature dizzying guitar feedback and heavy riffs by Stephen O’Mally of Sun O))) as well as pulsating synth loops (Burning Church & Forging the Beast). Consequently, the evolution of the films score represents the film’s descent from serenity to the macabre. Similarly, it helps sell the fiery bloodlust of Cage’s character after his peaceful, pastoral life is disrupted.
That being said, Nicolas Cage delivers another polarizing performance in Mandy as he takes the emotions of heartbreak and rage into an entirely different stratosphere. Whether you love him or hate him, Cage has an undeniable explosiveness on camera and his manic, exaggerated performances are often times unforgettable. The actor told Variety in September of last year: “You show me where the top is and I’ll let you know whether I’m over it or not, all right?” (Variety). This film is no exception to the reputation he has built for himself in recent years. In one scene, he screams from a toilet seat while downing half a bottle of vodka in his underpants. In another, he lights a cigarette from the head of a burning corpse.
These over exaggerated moments throughout the film prove that Cage has a talent for acting like a complete maniac on screen, yet his performance in scenes before his rampage leaves something to be desired. In fact, before his bloodthirsty quest for revenge Cage is surprisingly silent and uninteresting. The absence of emotion at the beginning of the film makes his transition to frenzied vengeance hard to buy. But when all is said and done, Cage’s performance is far from a bust. He is as irascible, psychotic and unpredictable as his most infamous appearances like The Wicker Man (2006) and Vampire’s Kiss (1989).
Unsurprisingly, the most successful moments of the film occur when Cage’s spastic presence is paired with the film’s equally exaggerated action sequences. While these scenes are sparse, the few that are present throughout the film’s two hour run time are enough to make the film worth watching. Without giving too much away, these scenes end in everything ranging from decapitation to one character crushing another’s skull with their bare hands.
But even though the score, the action sequences and Cage’s performance make for a wild ride, the plot disappoints by never straying from revenge film tropes. This tried and true formula makes for a convenient catalyst that drives the plot in recent films like John Wick (2014) and Django Unchained (2012), but the main problem is that films in the genre fail to ever fully develop the characters that set the plot into motion. Mandy makes this same misstep as the female lead, Andrea Riseborough, is given very few lines and ultimately a miniscule part in the overall plot. It is clear from the outset that Riseborough is a means for the plot to justify Cage’s over the top acting. The film cultivates a unique aesthetic through the dark tone and exaggerated imagery, but the plot by comparison feels uninspired.
In its best moments, Mandy is a window into a dream or even a deep descent into nightmare. Its dark lighting and somber tone is expertly matched by Dunn and Jóhannsson score to pull viewers deeper into its dreamscape. The action sequences are also intensely satisfying as Cage’s bloodlust develops on screen. But the lack of memorable performances aside from Cage and the recycled plot line do not give viewers much to grab onto. Each of these factors make Mandy a successful experiment in tone and grotesque violence, but a failure to develop human characters or a compelling plot. If you are looking for a moody piece of horror or even a slow burning thriller, look no further. But if you are searching for a human experience, Mandy might be a dream you’ll want to wake up from.