Andrei Tarkovsky loved to sit on an image: imagine a slow-burning sunset, even if the light was in a child’s eyes (he obsessed over spiritual burnouts). Panos Cosmatos seems to think the burn was a fuse. He not only sits on it but he sits everyone around the table and doesn’t tell them it’s going to explode. Mandy is an old myth of biblical penitence that explodes into manly revolt; it’s Tarkovsky filtered through pulp-madness, and frustrated nightmare desires. Many have considered that the film is like a heavy metal album cover but they underestimate just how much this is true. It’s not enough to ask what Mandy tells us about metal because that denies Cosmatos’ basic truth behind his mad genius here: he’s made a film that asks what metal tells us about us.
Remember when people used to call it “devil music?” Mandy decides to make that literal, weaving the wardrobe of Hellraiser into a neon wilderness with a long, synth-like slowness that suggests a visualization of Vangelis tuning up. Mandy works with this stillness to create horror. Its first half is a clawing, ear-ringing dream about pretending to be normal in a world of mad things, like the warp tunnel scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey relocated to the laconic Pacific Northwest, like Dave Bowman wants for cornflakes while the universe passes him by. Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) particularly is an eerie subject to be slowed down and examined so closely: she has wide, fatalistic eyes and no eyebrows, a kind of look that the Bride of Frankenstein would give to someone she hoped to convince that she had a normal childhood. Mandy tells us the takeaway tragedies of her upbringing, lolling in her bedsheets, words barely coming together. They involve freakish images of Dadaist monsters, angry planets and hammers smashing baby starlings. Her husband, Red (Nicolas Cage), has a way of defusing those perversities with perversity equal and opposite; while she has the hard-won meaningfulness of her expressive symbols, he has the easy grace of a bad comedian perfect for drama (he responds to her Freudian nightmare fuel with a reference to the Marvel comics villain Galactus). How does Cage elevate himself to us? It must be by the reality that many of us live our whole lives as very bad actors. He’s bad enough to mythologize the rest of us.
Mandy could be his most memorable work. A grotesquely long image of Cage bawling, screaming over a barbed wire mouth gag, is like a Dreyer shot smashed into its teeth and tears. Half of Mandy is like The Passion of Joan of Arc, a trial of guilt and want. A man named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), raised into the delusion of his angry faithfulness, rants inches from the camera about his godly power for what seems like eternity (many will feel they’ve spent more than two hours in Mandy’s grunge wonderland). He undresses and lets his penis hang into Mandy’s face. When she laughs at him, the film’s fury becomes biblical. It posits how faith can allow people to justify killing those they find most beautiful, and how much rebellion can come from those that get put down. If Cage had died in the first half of Mandy (it’s separated by subtitles like tracks on an album) and come back for the second by sheer angry will, his vengeance would not be more brutal.
Cosmatos holds a long shot of Cage weeping in his bathroom, guzzling vodka on the toilet in his soiled underwear, and I realized that only Cage could pull this off (and only Cosmatos could take it this seriously: Tarantino would have made his tidy whites Superman-print). Cage has a skill for lacking irony: when he says something clumsily you have to accept it at the value of clumsiness. That in turn becomes the value of the Cage movie: whether the film becomes smitten by the mis-delivery (Moonstruck) or wallows in it (211). Most dark comics would pride themselves in their ability to be funny without being laughable. Cage is an incredible exception, a variety of the reverse that works even better, with the right director in charge (as he was with Herzog in Bad Lieutenant, Cage and Cosmatos seem made for each other). He manages to be enduringly laughable – every frame of Mandy could be memed into eternity – and yet never funny. He has the power not only to remind us what it’s like to cry on our toilet in the middle of the night, but also to make us laugh at how vulnerable it makes us. Mandy is what would happen if we got up from the toilet and did what we imagined we’d do to take back our lives from a maddening world. It’s a child’s idea of justice. Do you understand how perversely violent that makes it?
Cage forges an ax that looks like Slipknot’s idea of business casual and reaps the demons that Jeremiah and his gang have conjured up. And then he comes for them. What could be said of the film’s roaring latter half? Cage fights the demon crew and their human enablers, a cast of filthy acolytes each as memorable as full villains of other films. There's an eccentric LSD manufacturer on loan from Blue Velvet (Richard Brake) and a hillbilly at the center of a chainsaw swordfight; there's a saintly prostitute filled with wicked vanity (Olwen Fouéré) and a right-hand demonizer called Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), who's like Dean Stockwell without the eyeliner. This movie is not only heavy: it weighs something. Cage meets these multifarious monologue junkies with such furious eyes that the movie grants him unlimited power. We aren’t logistically prepared for his descent into neo-grunge combat superiority (how is he so skilled, exactly?) and we don’t have to be. He decodes movie revenge for us. Mandy is all in the images of him doing so.
Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb isn’t shy. There’s a kind of warped self-importance in his work that not only has the look of album covers but the appeal of them too. The film is full of dreams – on planets that Frank Frazetta might have painted and in forests that are not shy on unicorns, though shy on showing them – and we see them as dreams must be seen to be understood (that is, from far away). Dreams never have the personality of a first-person perspective; they have the unnerving quality of a person watching themselves speak to someone else. This is what Loeb brings to every frame of Mandy, steeped in wavering color and aloof, almost muffled speaking. The whole film seems to be looking through glass. Jeremiah’s sermon to the imprisoned Mandy is like a terrarium reptile’s view of shoppers. His face not only looms possessively, but it even contains Mandy’s reflection in it. Their eyes combine as he demeans her; you imagine Jeremiah thinks he’s getting to her somehow, but he doesn’t realize that Mandy is more or less unattached to her own eyes. He doesn’t realize that we’re coming for him.
It must be noted how awful the animated segments are (compare them to Kill Bill’s, for instance). They’re like Flash animation versions of John Carter paperback covers. They’re jarringly flat against the depth of the other images, where even a single light can blind the entire scene, and these primal reds and purples color the universe with justified rage. Johann Johansson provides his last score for Mandy and it works because it communicates heavy metal without using any of it. It’s full of shrieks and long blank tones. It sets the entire thing on a grotesque edge, and prevents us from pumping our fists in excitement when Red does exactly what we want him to, as triumphant rock would. It reminds us that heavy metal isn’t about victories; it’s about giving our ultimate failures the sound of one. Cage has been in better movies, but none perhaps as much like him.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Panos Cosmatos (story and screenplay)
Aaron Stewart-Ahn (screenplay)
|Red Miller||Nicolas Cage|
|Mandy Bloom||Andrea Riseborough|
|Jeremiah Sand||Linus Roache|
|The Chemist||Richard Brake|
|Brother Swan||Richard Dennehy|
|Mother Marlene||Olwen Fouéré|