Mandy (2018)

Directed by: Panos Cosmatos
Runtime: 2hrs 1min
Genre: Action, Horror, Thriller

Strange, surreal and dreamlike barely begin to cover Panos Cosmatos’ bizarre and blood-thirsty vengeance film, Mandy. It’s a trip and a half, or was it two and half trips? You might be able to make the case that it’s surreal enough to take place entirely within Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge. It certainly seems to be going for uncanny Lynchian vibes.

It takes place in 1983 in a place called The Shadow Mountains, whose wooded landscape and dreamlike quality led to the Twin Peaks reference. Even in the film’s smaller moments, every shot is a wash of vivid colors. This is a world of unnatural beauty, the colors are wildly saturated and the skies unnaturally picturesque.

It opens with the words, “When I die, Bury me deep, Lay two speakers at my feet, Wrap some headphones, Around my head, And rock and roll me, When I’m dead” displayed in red text while electric guitar wails like a classic rock ballad in the background.

Clearly Cosmatos’ vision was to direct a film whose every scene looked like a metal album cover. And though it carries on a bit longer than it needed to, it’s a wild success at fulfilling that vision.

Nevertheless the real question is whether this is good Nicolas Cage or bad Nicolas Cage. These days he’s more remembered for memes and YouTube clips of his more silly performances. He has certainly faded from blockbuster relevance, but he’s found a second home in smaller, straight-to-digital thrillers.

The task for Cosmatos in casting Cage was to determine how best to reign in Cage’s often wild-eyed, over-the-top on-screen persona. Yet the material here is some of the stuff best suited to Cage’s more “Cagey” performances. Miraculously Cosmatos maintains a good handle on when to dial Cage down and when to let him push closer to full-on madness. This is some of the best conscious utilization of Cage’s persona I’ve seen in some time.

Here, Cage is playing the “Mad Max” role of the only guy with a shred of sanity in a brutal hellscape. He and his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live a quiet life in the mountains until a psychotic leader of a religious cult takes a fancy to her after spotting her while out and about.

Linus Roache, who gives a show stealing performance, plays Jeremiah, the cult leader with a gang of animalistic, 4-wheel driving, drug addicts available to do his bidding. They kidnap Mandy and the rest is a slow-burn trip to hell and back again.

Cosmatos maintains an ominous tension throughout the first half of the film through softly delivered dialogue and Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s slow camera movements. The second half of the film becomes a bloodbath highlighted by a fight involving two men swinging chainsaws at each other like they’re swords.

In addition to the visually stunning aesthetic, Cosmatos plays around a bit with structure. He is, if anything, a fan of bold choices. The title sequence doesn’t pop up until after the one hour mark, making it clear that everything up to that point was setup and the real meat of the film has yet to come. And once it does, the surreal and the gruesome are ratcheted up in equal measure.

Yet Cosmatos also wisely abstains from turning the film into torture-porn, instead he occasionally elects to use environmental storytelling rather than specifically showing the villains misdeeds. A glance around the room while Cage’s character walks through is enough to make the situation clear.

I’m inclined to praise Cosmatos for being willing to maintain such a slow-burn pace throughout, even during the films lengthy action climax, but there is, no doubt, a tighter cut of this film that runs 20 minutes shorter and is all the better for it.

This is the kind of film begging for some scholar to unpack the thematic underpinnings of religious fanaticism and the fact that the descent into hell involves a stop at a church. But I’ll leave that to better minds.

Also of note, this is one of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson last compositions. It’s also one of his best. From the opening frames of the film, Jóhannsson’s score becomes core to the experience. As good as the visual component of the film is, Jóhannsson’s score is essential to establishing and maintaining the atmosphere. Jóhannsson left us too soon, but at least he gave us one last great score before he went.

There’s only so much you can get from a dime-a-dozen revenge thriller, but Cosmatos pulls it off with such a rare visual flair that you’re unlikely to forget this one any time soon.

 

4 Stars

 

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