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MANDY (2018): Revenge is a hallucination

[This article was originally written as an assignment for my degree.]

Mandy is a film split in two.

The first part is defined by conversations between the eponymous Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and Red (Nicolas Cage). Theirs is a love story, slow burning, delicate and loving. One such conversation is about what planet they deem to be their favourite. Mandy says her favourite is Jupiter, a gaseous giant, beautiful storm raging for thousands of years. Red initially chooses Saturn, a planet famed for the ice rings that encircle it. However, he then chooses Galactus, a cosmic entity from Marvel Comics who consume planets.

That brings into the play the second part of the film. The much-famed revenge sequence which dominates all diatribes about the movie. Nic Cage is all-consuming revenge machine that kills all that cross him. The violence is extreme, a pay-off from the slow burn that preceded.

That isn’t to say that the meditative, ethereal quality that possesses the movie isn’t at odds with itself. Far from it. What Panos Cosmatos achieves is a development from Beyond The Black Rainbow. That dreams and nightmares are but merely a split second from one another.

The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is broodingly metal. The late musician worked with Stephen Malley, guitarist of many Doom Metal sounds like Sunn O))). This collaboration is fuelling the hell that is being forced upon the viewer and in turn Red.  During Beyond The Black Rainbow, the score from Sinoia Caves is an accompaniment to the visuals, whereas in Mandy the score dominates and is the emotion that can be felt.

The character dimensions of Red and Mandy written by Cosmatos and co-screenwriter Aaron Stewart-Ahn are very deftly handled. We are alluded to a man who has been broken in the past, has an aversion to vices like alcohol when he is with Mandy. He is a damaged man who has been repaired by Mandy, she has made him happy. Mandy is a woman with a physical scar on her face which is telling of a rough childhood. Her story of the Starlings hints at what’s to come, but also concurrently reveals who she is. These two are written for each other, and it is testament to the acting of Cage and Riseborough that an audience understands and is invested in it.

The cult, ‘The Children of the New Dawn’ on the other-hand are exaggerated caricatures. All but one a made to look physically and mentally repulsive. Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) is a horrible, ugly creation. A man who built up this idea of another life to fuel an ego, and to be the pinnacle of sexual manifestation. The key scenes with him are seeing this façade fall apart. Firstly, as he exposes him to Mandy, and she laughs at him, robbing him of any power that his nakedness might have held. And the other is the final confrontation with Red, who holds his head in his hands and squeezes the life out of him as his true pitiful, hateful self is shown in his final moments. Cosmatos and Stewart-Ahn want to reveal the dangerous power dynamics of a cult and attempt to give a solution (or solutions) to combat them. The cult has this habit of waxing lyric over objects they have sanctified, like the ‘Horn of Abraxis’ an instrument used for calling the Black Skull Bikers.

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As a construction of grief and mourning, Red takes over the film. But the spectre of Mandy is ever present. There a sequence of three animated sequences, implied to be the dreams of Red as he is asleep/unconscious. In each of them Mandy is centre-fold, drawn as an undead, supernatural, immortal being. In the final animation, Mandy tends to a bleeding Panther-like Alien; putting her hand inside and bringing out a golden orb. Red awakes to a babbling brook after this vision. Mandy is with him, fuelling him even as he delves deeper into insanity in a quest for vengeance.

The visuals of Mandy are deliberately iconographic in their approach. References abound, the film attempts to show an era that isn’t longer relevant, but nostalgic. There are images which conjure up recalls of Heavy Metal album covers; Prog Rock compositions and the VHS covers of a Video-Rental store. A Tiger is released from its cage, and roars outside to the side of an orange sky, jagged mountains and extortionately large Moon. The Black Skull Riders are like the Cenobites from Hellraiser, their presence is utterly horrifying in any sequence they are in. As they threaten Red and Mandy, the lights flicker, and we can hear a static electric charge almost like a portal from Hell is being opened or its one of Doctor Frankenstein’s experiments gone wrong. This is all intentional.

As with his previous feature, Panos Cosmatos drenches the screen in colour. The saturation helps this transporting effect; a person bathed in red is at once connotating danger but also sensuality, depending on the point-of-view. There are colour-bands that infect the screen, almost as though the settings on a VCR are not set correctly.

After Beyond The Black Rainbow, it is evident that Panos Cosmatos has used the good word of his feature debut to be more confident behind the camera. There are subtle shifts in movement that weren’t being done previously. The blocking of actors and the space around the frame is framed with the skill of someone much more experienced. The editing, the colour saturation and the breathing of scenes appear to be a signature style now. The direction in Mandy is self-assured, boding well for the future of this talented filmmaker.

As The Chemist tells Red, “You exude a cosmic darkness”. Mandy was the light in the life of Red. And in Mandy the audience witnesses the revenge, the grief and violent outbursts when that cosmic darkness is let loose upon the world. Mandy is a film in two parts, but one cannot exist without the other. This is something Cosmatos, Cage, Riseborough, and Stewart-Ahn understand completely.

Here is the synopsis:

Pacific Northwest. 1983 AD. Outsiders Red Miller and Mandy Bloom lead a loving and peaceful existence. When their pine-scented haven is savagely destroyed by a cult led by the sadistic Jeremiah Sand, Red is catapulted into a phantasmagoric journey filled with bloody vengeance and laced with fire.

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