More than an hour in, the film’s title appears, growing lichen-like, sinister and near-illegible, as all great metal album covers are. The name and title card—Mandy—immediately follows a scene in which our hero forges his own Excalibur, a glistening, deformed axe adorned with pointy and vaguely erotic edges and appurtenances, the stuff of H.R. Giger’s wettest dreams. Though Red (Nicolas Cage) could use, and pretty much does use, any weapon at hand to avenge the brutal murder of his titular love (Andrea Riseborough), he still crafts that beautiful abomination as ritual, infusing his quest for revenge with dark talismanic magic, compelled by Bakshi-esque visions of Mandy to do her bidding on the corporeal plane. He relishes the ceremony and succumbs to the rage that will push him to some intensely extreme ends. We know almost nothing about his past before he met Mandy, but we can tell he knows his way around a blunt, deadly object.
In a title card early in the film, we learn that Mandy takes place in 1983; Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech plays over Red’s car radio as he drives home from his job as a lumberjack in Oregon/Washington’s Blue Mountains, the Gipper extolling the “greatness” of America. Red turns it off. The brief parallel between then and now is more than enough: Director Panos Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart Ahn know exactly how obvious their comparison will read, littering their film with early-’80s references but keeping its sentiments anachronistic, because Mandy is a film unstuck in time. As its horrors increase and multiply and grow to cosmic proportions, the film’s world shrinks more and more in on itself, a universe unto itself, existing only, perhaps, within Red’s addled brain, translating his savage sojourn as a fairy tale of Grimm portent. The more caked in blood and viscera Red becomes—Cage’s bone-white eyeballs and milk-white teeth psychotic against all that ruddiness—the more all sense of time and place falls away. We can’t make America great again when “again” means nothing.
Mandy, then, is a revenge movie, though it’s more of a revenge movie about the victim who needs revenging than the one who enacts revenge. Red is a mild-mannered, blue collar guy who lives in the middle of nowhere with his girlfriend or wife or partner, and together they eek out a small living, which is enough to satisfy their simple lives. Mandy’s an artist who’s into D&D-type mystical shit and wearing all black, her hair down to her butt, her part-time job spent reading fantasy novels while manning the register at a small convenience store, while Red spends all his time with Mandy when he’s not chainsawing trees, possibly a recovering alcoholic, and probably just a quiet, content guy who’s finally found a semblance of peace. Of course, the thick forests of the Pacific Northwest hide seemingly ancient evil, and Red’s peace comes with a price. One day while driving with his small band of followers, cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache, Oscar-worthy) sees Mandy aimlessly walking and smoking, falling instantly in love. He tells his second-in-command, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), that he must have her.
Evil begets evil, so Swan uses the Horn of Abraxis (more an ocarina than a brass instrument) to call on a gang of barbarous, demonic, phlegmy bikers, outfitted like Cenobites, to lead the charge into Mandy and Red’s home. The bikers demand “blood for blood”; Swan offers the sacrifice of one of their own so Jeremiah can have the woman he needs. Their kidnapping, macabre and swift, goes smoothly, until Mandy literally laughs in Jeremiah’s face after she’s drugged by a giant Cronenbergian insect and forced to listen to the cult leader’s folksy psychedelic-lite stab at mainstream music success (a clean allusion to the rock star aspirations of someone like Charles Manson). She’s not into such nonsense. Give her Iron Maiden.
Not one to be so humiliated, to have his holy-ordained desires rejected, Jeremiah punishes Mandy in fire, forcing Red to watch gagged and strung up by barbed wire, yet another sharp, occult weapon pushed deep into his side, scarring him as a mockery of Christ’s stigmata. With the sumptuous, unflinching cinematography of Benjamin Loeb, Cosmatos witnesses it all, never exploiting the horror of what Red experiences, but knowing that it will awake something in the man—something in us—that will compel him to act. Likewise, in these moments, Cage is heartbreaking, channeling primordial craziness not because that is what he does now, what he is to our stupid culture, but because he is a full-bodied actor who needs to be pulled back from the parodic void. Riseborough, captivating but aloof, is the actor to do that for him, and so even when she’s absent from the movie, she’s fully felt, the scion of prelapsarian justice and the symbol of all that must be righted on our failing planet. She’s the woman co-star who shoulders Cage’s chaos.
Red, wounded and potentially hallucinating macaroni and cheese commercials starring vomiting goblins, then, once Jeremiah has left and the flames have subsided, sets out to confront the “crazy evil” that’s disrupted his idyllic existence. He stops by the mobile home of old friend Caruthers (Bill Duke, creaking cameo perfection) to reclaim a crossbow he once stashed there a lifetime ago. In turn, Caruthers gives him some “special” bone-piercing arrows, explaining that Red will need such vicious implements to face the biker gang, which Caruthers describes as the result of poisoned LSD mistakenly dosed back when they were running drugs for a local chemist. Red, undaunted, assembles his unholy arsenal, pulling the weird scary axe more from the bowels of his unconscious than from a metal workshop. Finished, he admires the weapon, and then the screen goes dark, Mandy spawning across that black.
So begins Red’s unhinged murder spree, phantasmagoric and gloriously violent. A giant bladed dildo, a ludicrously long chainsaw, a hilarious pile of cocaine, the aforementioned spiked LSD, the aforementioned oracular chemist, a tiger, more than one offer of sex—Red encounters each as if it’s the detritus of a waking nightmare, fighting or consuming all of it, venturing deeper into Jeremiah’s realm. As was the case in Cosmatos’s first film, the comparatively sedate Beyond the Black Rainbow, each frame, every shot of Mandy reeks of shocking beauty, stylized at times to within an inch of its intelligibility, but endlessly pregnant with creativity and control, euphoria and pain, clarity and honesty and the ineffable sense that Cosmatos knows exactly how and what he wants to subconsciously imprint into the viewer. Sometimes a smoke machine and some colored lights can go a long way. Sometimes Red needs to dream in cartoons. Sometimes a goblin puppet needs to puke cheese bile onto a 10-year-old’s head. Throughout, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score veers between ambient synth and droning, apocalyptic anti-pop, the perfect accompaniment to Red’s medieval fantasy.
Still, Mandy is a revenge movie, and a revenge movie has to satiate the audience’s bloodlust. Cosmatos bathes Red (natch) in gore, every kill hard won and subcutaneously rewarding. Yet, with the specter of Reagan’s words creeping throughout the film, the film’s rage and atrocity feels purposed. There is no other film this year that so effectively feeds off of the audience’s anger, then sublimates it, releasing it without allowing it to go dangerously further. We need this kind of retribution now; we’re all furious with the indifferent unfairness of a world and a life and a society, of a government, that does not care about us. That does not value our lives. When they meet again, as we know they will, Jeremiah castigates Red, “It’s all that hate in your heart, is to blame. Follows you everywhere, man, follows you everywhere.” Mandy is our response to all that’s in our heart, our purging. Mandy is our revenge movie. Watch it big. Watch it loud. Watch yourself exorcised on screen.
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Writers: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Bill Duke
Release Date: September 14, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.