The rage-filled screams of Nicolas Cage echo through the minds of anyone who has seen Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 film, Mandy. It is a film lauded by horror fans as an acid trip through Hell with Cage as the driver. But what is often overlooked is the role of the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). While she is only in the film for its first act, she is the driving force behind much of the violence. More than that, she is subjected to a predatory gaze that creates an unwanted narrative around her, a narrative that elevates her to fantastic heights.
Mandy herself is a waify woman who is fixated on all things fantasy and is content hiding in the woods. She is a woman who is coping with her trauma by finding solace in solitude. She seems to eschew male attention, though never explicitly. While her trauma is never explained, she alludes to it with a story about a cruel father. The scar across her face also hints at a troubled past. However, regardless of her efforts to hide from it, the male gaze literally seems to find her anyway. To the men in her life — partner Red (Cage) and cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) — she is a prize to be won, an otherworldly being who bestows some kind of meaning to their lives.
In fact, the film itself is obsessed with the idea of Mandy and what she motivates men to do. It’s not really a film about Mandy as a person, but as a figure who is worshipped, who doesn’t want to be. She is kidnapped for merely looking at a man and then is killed in the name of male jealousy. She is also the impetus of Red’s bloody revenge and often appears to him like a magical creature, guiding him to victory. But ultimately, her actual character represents a fear many women can identify with: the fear of what male attention brings.
The coveting of Mandy’s body and reducing her to some heavy metal manic-pixie-dream-girl makes itself most obvious in a single shot when Mandy locks eyes with the camera. Her eyes, which seem full of caution and fear, stare right into the camera, meeting the gaze of the viewer. Instead of avoiding the gaze, she confronts it and therefore makes the viewer self-conscious of their position as a voyeur.
Film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term the male gaze and discussed it as the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of women. That is, how women are filmed to make them more desirable to men, and therefore to be recipients of the male gaze. The camera views the body in pieces, focusing on legs, arms, eyes, lips, to chop the woman into easily consumable bites. Importantly, in Mulvey’s theory, female characters are not aware of this and instead perform as if to cater to such desires. The sexualization of their bodies is the camera’s focus; they are meant to be complicit in their own objectification. However, in this shot, Mandy’s own “to-be-looked-at-ness” is confronted head-on. Her own gaze back interrupts the voyeuristic male gaze. We are no longer allowed to consume and watch her body without being made aware of how we are looking.
In the moments leading up to this shot, Jeremiah and his cult, Children of the New Dawn, are driving down a secluded forest road where Mandy is taking a walk. As they approach her, Jeremiah sits up and removes his sunglasses to look at Mandy. The camera cuts from Jeremiah to Mandy, which in turn puts the audience in the position of the deranged cult leader.
In showing Jeremiah then Mandy, the camera establishes the power dynamic at play here, as well as placing the viewer within that power dynamic. The camera is looking slightly down at her from the car, which places Jeremiah above her but literally and figuratively. The audience is also looking down at her, which emphasizes how she is something — not someone — to be looked at.
It is not just the angle that is important here, but the use of color, as well. When looking at Mandy through Jeremiah’s eyes, the colors shift to red, giving the whole moment an eerieness. While Cosmatos is known for his colorful films and psychedelic visuals, the red here feels purposeful. It is not just a moment to make Mandy look trippy. Red is used to convey Jeremiah’s powerful and repulsive lust that compels him to kidnap women as part of his cult and regard them merely as objects to add to a macabre collection.
The old phrase “to see red” often connotes rage but can also connote a strong, uncontrollable feeling linked to violence. Here Cosmatos seems to take that phrase quite literally. Jeremiah is seeing red as he feels his uncontrollable need to have Mandy as his own. Just through a look, he is instantly obsessed with the idea of a woman whose name he doesn’t know.
Much of the attention given to Mandy is centered around critics and audiences applauding Cage’s unhinged performance as Red. This makes sense because he dominates so much of the latter half of the film with outlandish violence and prolonged screaming sessions. But little attention has been paid to Mandy herself, which in turn illustrates perhaps one of the film’s key points: the female body, no matter how coveted, always becomes second to men.