In 2010, filmmaker Panos Cosmatos came out guns blazing with his feature film debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and his follow-up project, Mandy, proved to be well worth the wait for those of us who have patiently waited to see just what the boundary-pushing director would do next. Like a powder keg of cinematic insanity ready to blow at any given moment (and when it does, man, the results are glorious), Mandy makes for a stunning companion piece to Black Rainbow in many ways, and yet still feels like a wholly unique step forward from Cosmatos. It’s hard to believe that he’s only two films into his career, but just based on his track record so far, Panos is now poised to become one of the boldest filmmaking voices of his generation.
At its core, Mandy is a story of revenge, as we watch in horror while Red Miller’s (Nicolas Cage) wife (Andrea Riseborough) is mercilessly slaughtered by a demented cult leader named Jeremiah (Linus Roache), putting Cage’s character on a quest for vengeance that pushes him to some very dark places after losing the love of his life. But the thing is, Mandy is so much more than just another revenge flick—it’s a mash-up of brutal terror and trippy LSD-fueled cult horror that also manages to evoke something of a rock opera feeling as well (this writer got some serious Tommy and Phantom of the Paradise vibes at one point). The most important aspect to Mandy’s story, though, is that Cosmatos has crafted a beautifully simple romance between Red and Mandy that grounds all the larger-than-life elements of his visual descent into madness, making Cage’s badass journey towards avenging the loss of his wife emotionally satisfying to boot (translation: I cried a little). Cosmatos gives us a reason for the chaos that drives the narrative of Mandy in the latter half, and to strike that perfect balance of exhilarating exploitative action and gut-wrenching loss is a tough feat to pull off successfully. But Mandy just nails it.
Something else that really struck me about Mandy is that even though Cosmatos sets the film during 1983, his wonderfully demented exploration about the damaging effects of the male ego feels so very relevant today. The reason for all this carnage is because of Jeremiah’s ego, and his “need” for Mandy’s affection, and when she doesn’t reciprocate interest, we see how his fragile psyche is unable to cope with her dismissal of him, and everything that he and his cult believe in.
In terms of the performances, both Cage and Riseborough are astonishingly great in Mandy, with their characters’ affection for each other palpable in every scene. The first half of the film has a bit more of a dreamy approach to it, with Cosmatos playing up the tranquil locale of Red and Mandy’s home and the modest nature of their relationship. Their happiness comes from just spending time together, whether it’s boating around on an idyllic lake, or sharing dinner together over a coffee table as they watch old cult movies on their TV. Their very existences are rooted in their deep-seated love for each other, so when Mandy is ripped away from him, Red is forced to confront this new existence without his lady love, as Mandy transforms into something of a mythical muse to her grieving husband (where Cosmatos utilizes some wicked cool animation that feels like Frank Franzetta-meets-Metalocalypse). And for as much fun as it is to watch “unhinged Cage” run around and destroy his enemies left and right (and holy crap, is it ever fun), I think the earlier stuff in Mandy where he’s just a normal guy living his life with Riseborough is his strongest work in the film. Between this and Mom and Dad, I’m very much enjoying how Cage is getting back into unconventional roles again, because I think that’s where he shines the most.
And if you haven’t been paying attention to Riseborough’s career so far (Oblivion, Birdman, Nocturnal Animals, and the upcoming comedy The Death of Stalin, in which she plays Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and is absolutely hilarious), get ready for her to take over in 2018, because this is definitely going to be her year.
There are so many reasons why I loved Mandy, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but to be honest, so many of those things were genuine surprises for me as I was watching it, and I feel like that’s the best way for anyone to see it. Suffice to say, if you’re into unabashedly experimental genre filmmaking that features weird cult stories, chainsaw fights, a Cenobite-esque biker gang that would no doubt leave Clive Barker smiling, copious amounts of bloodshed, and strong supporting performances from the likes of Bill Duke (Predator) and Richard Brake (31, Ray Donovan), you’re going to want to take a trip into hell with the latest from Cosmatos. Also, consider this a friendly reminder that if you’ve been sleeping on Beyond the Black Rainbow for the last seven years or so, now is as good a time as any to catch up.
Movie Score: 5/5