Movie Review: Mandy.
Mandy feels like two movies forced together: a slow, psychedelic thriller and a gory, gonzo grind-house flick.
The sophomore effort from director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) has been earning a heap of critical praise, especially for the performance of star Nicolas Cage. This raised my eyebrows, as did the premise of a lumberjack out for revenge against an LSD soaked New Age cult. After having seen it, I’m of two minds on the project. That seems appropriate as Cosmatos seemed of two minds in crafting his film: the first half is slow, surreal, and psychologically driven while the second hour is pure pulp action. The two just feel like oil and water by the end.
Red and Mandy are a quiet couple living off the beaten path in Oregon. Red works as a logger, and Mandy tends the local store while also creating fantasy art. Their lives are shattered when a New Age cult led by the narcissistic and erratic Jeremiah Sand passes through town. Sand spots Mandy and becomes infatuated with her. When she spurns his advances, a tragic and blood-soaked cascade of events unfolds.
Mandy, You’re a Fine Girl.
The first hour of Mandy is appropriately about Mandy. We get glimpses of Red’s life, but most of the narrative focus is on Mandy. We follow her daily routine, revolving chiefly around her art and fascination with pulp science fiction, and we see her often hallucinatory dreams and waking visions. The build up to the introduction of the cult is methodical and filled with layered sensory information. It’s slow but engaging.
Andrea Risenborough plays Mandy, and I enjoyed her performance. Her delivery of dialogue is like an incantation and she often commands attention with just her stare as Cosmatos allows the camera to linger on several artistically composed close ups. At one point we get alternating close ups of Risenborough and Linus Roach, who plays Jeremiah, where the images dissolve seamlessly from one of their faces to the other, creating an arresting overlay. In another, we get Mandy slowly approaching Red at a bonfire, and the confusion of depth perception of where the fire starts and Mandy stands is hypnotic – and prophetic.
Cosmatos loves to startle or mesmerize with his cinematography. The footage, shot on digital equipment but crafted to capture the grain and grit of 70’s era film stock, is washed with psychedelic colors and over-exposed to expand or shrink your focus on the images. In many ways the use of angle, color, composition and duration are reminiscent of Kubrick, if he’d dropped a heavy load of acid before making The Shining. There are even animated segments that feel like Ralph Bakshi’s fantasy films mixed with an issue of Heavy Metal magazine.
The sound work complements the film, from a haunting opening featuring King Crimson’s Starless, up to the big action finale drenched in synthesizer and electric guitar. The film flirts with sensory overload, only to pull way back and linger on a single image or sound for an intense moment.
…And Then, Naturally, A Chainsaw Fight Broke Out…
At pretty much the exact midpoint of the 2 hour and 4 minute production, the film goes insane. It had been eerie and bizarre, but the second act is 70’s exploitation film levels of gore and grotesqueness. After the cult gets their hands on the couple, Red goes to the bathroom, uncorks a bottle of booze and proceeds to down it while screaming and sobbing. It’s pure Nicolas Cage, if by that we admit that we’ve all tacitly agreed at this point in his career that all we expect from Nicolas Cage is for him to go bug-eyed and howl like a lunatic.
The final hour is a spiral into madness as Cage forges a battle axe, hunts down the cult and offs them in increasingly pulpy B-movie fashion. Between shots of him fighting a cultist with a razor bladed codpiece and eviscerating another with a chainsaw, we get explosions of drug fueled sound and animated insanity.
Does it Add Up?
It’s hard to say how effective Mandy is as a film. The first half is artistically engaging and lovingly crafted, but it doesn’t add up to much of a narrative. The second half throws away the subtlety in favor of a straightforward revenge story and buckets of blood and action. I found the first half to be engaging as a lover of film-making. There were so many subtleties of sound, setting, and composition that I’d love to talk about…but I think people were sold a chainsaw fighting movie, not an art house pic.
For fans drawn by the promise of a scenery-chewing performance by Cage and chainsaw fighting, the second half is obviously the more interesting part. They are so night-and-day, and share so little in common that I wonder if the B-movie crowd will bother to sit through an hour of art-house set-up. I also wonder if cinephiles are going to enjoy their cerebral meta-film getting thrown in a bloody wood chipper at the 1 hour mark.
It’s not as if the two aspects can’t work. David Lynch and Lars Von Trier both use dazzling technique on bloody and tawdry genre fair to good effect. Even Sam Raimi was able to marry art school dabbling with gonzo horror in his first Evil Dead film. It can work…Mandy just feels too fractured at the center. On some level, I enjoyed both concepts. Together, they left me cold. After getting to see the world through Mandy’s eyes, I just wasn’t interested in Red’s revenge porn.