It’s exactly what you expect from the director of ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’… and exactly what you want from the star of ‘The Wicker Man’ remake.
Low-key weirdness and high-energy intensity may not seem like an ideal match, but the pairing of director Panos Cosmatos and Nicolas Cage sees both talents giving everything they’ve got into a uniquely memorable collaboration. A simple plot synopsis for Mandy sounds exactly like a thousand other tales of revenge — a man seeks revenge for the murder of his wife — but the devil is in the ridiculously trippy and very bloody details.
Red (Cage) is a logger working the remote Shadow Mountains in the early 80s, and he comes home each day with a smile to his girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Her company is his lifeblood, and whether they’re discussing the stars or simply sleeping arm in arm beneath them it’s as perfect a life as he could hope for. Red’s not alone in his interest in Mandy, though, as a cult leader named Jeremiah (Linus Roache) has decided he wants her to join his caravan of killers. The group attacks the couple late one night leaving Mandy dead and Red refusing to die, and while the killers leave the carnage behind vengeance is soon on their trail.
Cage has dabbled in characters touched by hell before — Ghost Rider, Drive Angry, The Croods — but none have captured the feeling of being immersed into a hellscape as completely as Mandy. Cosmatos’ style is such that nearly every moment outside of the first ten minutes feels one or more steps removed from reality. Early on the sensation works as a calming, dreamlike salve to the point that we feel the couple’s calm and affection, but once the film shifts it enters into a fever dream of color, tension, and unease.
A big part of that is our time spent with Jeremiah’s “family” and the nightmarish gang he summons to abduct Mandy. An elaborate signalling draws the latter, a quartet of ATV-riding cenobite-like beings who were clearly once human but are now… not quite, but as unnerving as they are the cult members are still more frightening. Their humanity is very much intact, and they’re all the more dangerous and terrifying for it.
The film, co-written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is divided clearly into two parts, and it’s there where it will find and lose viewers. The first is pure Cosmatos, and anyone who’s seen Beyond the Black Rainbow knows that means scenes that are beautifully composed, seductively scored, and maybe three to four minutes too long. It’s more about tone and surreal atmosphere than convention, but it shifts into the best of both worlds after the attack.
Cage goes bonkers as only Cage can — one extended sequence sees him grieving in his tighty-whities while screaming, alternating between chugging vodka and pouring it on his wounds — and he stays in that mode through to the end. He secures weapons, from a crossbow he calls the Reaper to an elaborate battle ax he smelts himself, and he immediately gets to work chasing down every one responsible. Bodies are savaged, flesh is burned, piles of cocaine are snorted, and Cage sits wide-eyed at the center of it all.
As amazingly over the top as much of this is it’s worth noting that beneath the blood, sweat, and ever-shifting color palette sits a legitimately terrific performance by Cage. From the early calm through the later rage, there’s a focus here that’s been missing from too many of his direct to DVD “action” films of late. His grief is palpable, and we watch as that sorrow and anger combine to fuel his vengeance. His time with Riseborough feels lived in and real — not the dreamlike atmosphere, but the relationship itself — and it makes the inevitable turn that much more affecting.
Mandy‘s first act seems guaranteed to test the patience of viewers unaccustomed to Cosmatos’ way of doing things, and a handful of trims to the first hour would work wonders for the pacing (provided they keep the world’s best Erik Estrada knock-knock joke). If you make it past that hour, though, and I recommend that you do, the back half delivers a world unlike any other. Brutal brawls, very funny Cage quips, animated sequences, a chainsaw duel, a mother-flippin’ tiger, and more await.
[Editor’s note: Our review originally ran during Sundance 2018.]