Mandy, the 2018 magnum opus from director Panos Cosmatos, written with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is a film that will be polarizing to an audience. Its execution is very stylized, and that, combined with its oppressive mood, will be a huge turnoff for many, while many others will find themselves carried away by it all. It’s not completely a love it or hate it kind of film, but the world is rarely so black and white. What most viewers should be able to agree on is that Cosmatos’s film is ambitious, especially in the way it is photographed.
Mandy takes place in 1983, and stars Nicolas Cage as Red Miller and Andrea Riseborough as Mandy Bloom. The two of them live together in an isolated house in the Shadow Mountains of southeastern California (Belgium was the actual location for shooting). Red is a lumberjack while Mandy is a clerk at a local gas station.
The two of them are damaged people. Something happened to each of them long before they met, and they still struggle with the trauma. In their lives together they find love, calm, stability, and the therapy they both need. They are healing each other.
Nearby lives a small group of cultists called the Children of the New Dawn, led by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a former prog-rock musician who claims that God has told him the world is his. He is the type of cult leader who rules his flock in total, and uses any females in the group as sexual playthings.
On one of the group’s excursions, they see Mandy walking to work, and Jeremiah decides that he wants her. Thusly is set in motion the grisly events of the plot.
Jeremiah orders his trusted second, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), to enlist the help of a gang of psychotic bikers to invade Red and Mandy’s home in the middle of the night and subdue them.
The bikers are a nasty bunch. They appear in the woods after Swan calls them with a stone horn. Their aesthetic can be called ‘Cenobite-lite.’ The way they appear makes them seem as if they are supernatural entities, but there is nothing supernatural about this film. Rather, the monstrous visages and demeanor of the bikers is the result of being poisoned with a bad batch of LSD. That’s a pretty wild premise, but it fits right in with the rest of the film.
The bikers subdue Red and Mandy, and the Children are close behind. Red is strung up outside the house, while Jeremiah puts Mandy through an acid-fueled rite of initiation into the cult. She’s having none of it, despite the drugs and the threats, resulting in some bad things for Red and Mandy.
And that’s all the plot I’m going to spoil. Even writing about the nature of the bikers might be too much, as I found it rewarding to watch this film knowing little about it. What I feel most comfortable writing about is the look and feel of the film.
In many ways, Cosmatos and Stewart-Ahn’s script is conventional. The dialogue is nothing alien to this type of story, and will be familiar to any viewer who has seen films with similar plot elements. What is different is in how the film was shot.
In short, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb eschewed lighting. Just about every scene in this film is as dim as a trendy lounge on the Lower East Side of NYC, and much of it is suffused with a dull red light. The lighting is so low in this film that it is almost impossible to watch in a room with any other source of light than what is coming from the screen. It’s an extreme aesthetic choice, and one of the aspects of the film that viewers could find frustrating. But, it is quite striking. Even outdoor scenes aren’t spared the filtering. The scene where the cult first sees Mandy is almost duotone red and black.
Other shots mimic the effect of decades-old color photographs. The cynical part of me sees this and thinks that Cosmatos and Loeb went overboard with the Instagram filters. There is a reason more films aren’t shot like this. Despite the care that went into making this film, there are still plenty of stretches where the aesthetic slips into gimmickry.
Usually that occurs when Cosmatos slows things down to a crawl and lingers in scenes for far longer than most filmmakers would. In an attempt to capture the sublime, Cosmatos takes that conventional screenplay mentioned above and puts it through an artistic wringer. Every line, especially from the Children, has to be delivered in a profound fashion. There are no moments of levity among the children, and nothing resembling the normalcy of daily life, even when they do normal things. Reality and pace are twisted about to suit the darkness of the photography. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (this would be the last film score before his death), provided a pulsating and disturbing score as a fitting accoutrement, even if, at times, its close tracking of the dialogue makes it cross into the absurd.
I can’t emphasize enough how much the photography dominates this film. It lives and dies on how it looks. More than anything else, including the acting and the violence, it’s the look and feel that will determine how a viewer responds to the film. As for that acting and violence…
The performances in this film are all excellent, including Cage. This is the era when Cage has become the king of bad movies. He stars in something like half a dozen low-rent films per year, and can be reliably called upon to overact in all of them. But, it can’t be forgotten that he is a talented performer, and when given actual direction, will make a film better. There are a couple of moments where he hams it up in this film, including a scene with a pair of tighty-whities and a bottle of vodka, but even that scene is justified by events in the film.
Meanwhile, Linus Roache’s cult leader is understated, while at the same time being oppressive. He rarely has to speak loudly. The look in his eyes is enough to frighten.
The first half of this film is a slow menace, and serves to set up the second half. However, the film loses some of its uniqueness as it moves towards resolution. The atmosphere remains intact, but the action on the screen becomes something like a Rob Zombie film. There are even throwaway one-liners that feel out of place after the care and heaviness of earlier dialogue. There are also a few short, animated interludes that would have been best left out, as they are so different that they end suspension of disbelief, forcing the viewer to readjust back into the film.
Mandy is an ambitious film with deep flaws. If the aesthetic is too much for a viewer, if all they see is funhouse trickery and overused gimmickry, then they will hate it. However, there is nothing else quite like this film. For horror fans, it’s almost required viewing, just so one can form an opinion about it. For all viewers, it’s a strange, strange trip.