At the corner of Art and Insanity, there’s a new resident. It’s a blood-soaked, neon chromed whirlwind of impossible decisions, but it’s there all the same. Mandy, directed and co-written by Panos Cosmatos in the same oblique horror oeuvre as his Beyond the Black Rainbow, is a tremendous film in almost every regard, and it seems that the more words used to describe it, less I’m able to capture its thoroughly batshit essence.
Heavily touted as a return of Nicolas Cage, he actually isn’t even a prominent part of the film until halfway through. Everything leading up to it is an excruciatingly slow build of Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) attempting to decipher her inscrutable dreams, dreams that we see as intersecting with the existence and will of cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). This quiet woodland life that Red (Cage) and Mandy have built for themselves is necessarily seen, as it delivers the payload of the second half.
Which I won’t say much more about because, well, it’s almost impossible to convey just exactly what happens but also because the less you know about this film going into it, the better. But the glacial dissection of this banality—Red and Mandy eating dinner in front of the TV, discussing their favorite planets, simply working their jobs with no purpose other than to see them work—is crucial. It’s a reset of the outside world; all you know is the silence. And then Cage begins.
All the praise you’ve heard surrounding this film for Cage’s performance is probably correct. The truly surprising part is that it almost all comes from just one scene. It’s a reminder that for all the goofy Internet fuel he has gifted us with his career, he is still a top-shelf actor, and this one scene has him shuttling in and out of emotions—wordlessly, at that—with a raw and reckless drive. It’s deeply affecting, somewhat to the point of where all you can do is laugh it’s so dramatic, but it serves a direct and gory purpose. It’s a switch being flipped.
It’s a switch that flips the audience from stewing in the haunting and enthralling performances of Riseborough and Roache. Between them and the rest of Jeremiah’s cult, it feels as if everyone had to draw a Twin Peaks character out of a hat to pull inspiration from, except every slip just just said “Red Room.” And that’s with the highest praise. They are all nothing if not perfectly ethereal, skimming across the peaks of reality as Cosmatos has them stare directly into your mind.
And it all slots right into the pastiche, everything seemingly oozing with a nightmarish crimson, all of cinema’s grotesque detritus washed down the drain and landing here in Mandy. The dramatic shifts from intimate closeups to the epic breadth of classic 80s sci-fi framing, all backed by the audio-visual marriage of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s thumping soundtrack with a grainy metallic sheen, can only put you on edge and keep you there. It is a complete and affecting experience.
There is so much more to be said about this movie, but only to those that have seen it. It is, for the first timers, a viewing meant to be unraveled at a pace unknown. It feels of the same ambition that Darren Aronofsky’s Mother aimed for, except it wanted to do away with the ambiguity and simply marinate in the bare essentials of the narrative, giving prominence to the vision. Mandy is an unsettling odyssey, but one that you’re going to love.
Final Score: 9 out of 10