Panos Cosmatos’s violent revenge thriller is like every other violent revenge thriller and yet unique, owing mainly to its stubborn insistence on describing a specific place and time that has no discernible purpose. Set somewhere in the California wilderness in 1983, Mandy could have been set in a suburb of Indianapolis in 2010 with no change in theme or plot, and yet Cosmatos keeps throwing signifiers at us, as if he expects the viewer to pick up allusions that might explain the protagonist’s disturbing behavior. In that regard, the only thing that makes sense is the casting: Nicolas Cage may not have been born to play the grieving lumberjack, Red, but given his recent tendency to take every part offered to him, including terrible ones, he seems preternaturally suited to play this sympathetic monster.
The title character is Red’s lover (or wife? it’s not clear), played by Andrea Riseborough. If the time frame means anything, it forces this couple to live in true isolation, before the Internet and social media, but because they seem to be living in a cabin far from even the smallest rural town, their situation is already that of outcasts, and it’s easy to form the opinion that Red’s desultory but often creepy demeanor means he can’t live with other humans comfortably. His love for Mandy, perhaps as a corollary, is pure and direct. It eventually becomes obvious that Red is a recovering alcoholic, allowing Cage to channel some of the latent self-loathing from his Oscar-winning gambit in Leaving Las Vegas. The age difference is also played up. Red’s peculiar form of damage could be PTSD (Vietnam?) or simply the healing of scars from a time when men were supposed to be men, while Mandy has a kind of post-hippie chic about her, with her vintage rock T-shirts and flair for nature.
This idyll is compromised formally by Cosmatos’s use of a harsh synth score by the late Johann Johannsson and a muddy palette overflowing with deep reds and oranges, and soon enough the idyll is shattered narratively with an unannouced and seemingly random home invasion by a religious cult headed by a Jesus-wannabe named Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache). They kidnap and drug Mandy while Red is away, torture and expose her to Jeremiah’s misogynistic brand of spiritual redemption and then kill her for making fun of it, an extremely clever way of getting the viewer to identify with the victim, since Sand is a ridiculous figure from the get-go. Still, he seems to have some sort of conduit to genuine demons, who double as a biker gang. When Red exacts his very messy revenge using everything from chainsaws to a kind of mystical axe he forges himself, it’s as much a release from the self-hatred he’s contained as a former addict as it is a righteous unleashing of Biblical might. It’s also supremely macho but not in an off-putting way, since it’s presented as a kind of bad LSD trip and thus beyond the purview of sexual politics—heavy metal culture for woke aeshetes, and it’s powerful while being totally ludicrous.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
Mandy home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 Mandy Films, Ltd.