Mandy opens with an epigraph that, best I can tell, came from the final words of a death row inmate executed in 2005 (which was in turn a personalized version of a quote by fans of the Grateful Dead):
“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, wrap some headphones / around my head / and rock and roll me / when I’m dead.”
A mission statement: This film is meant to feel like rock ‘n’ roll, a concept album told visually with neon phantasmagoria. Not only a mission statement, but a subversive one: It’s so dark that it took inspiration from the last words of a convicted murderer on death row.
It feels like the kind of album you cue up in a car, in which to get lost in gorgeous but utterly indecipherable sounds … only to later learn from a friend (or Wikipedia) you were jiving with a story about an angry angsty dude murdering people in the ugliest ways possible. You can’t stop listening to it, but those brief moments of realization about the actual substance you’re enjoying sometimes give you a pause.
You listen to the album every day anyway. The style becomes the substance.
Mandy is about the murder of Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) by cultists and the subsequent violent retaliation by her soft-spoken partner, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage). That’s the entire story in a nutshell.
Whether it is inherently misogynist to tell stories about men avenging the deaths of their women is up for internet debate, but if you’re sensitive to women being tortured as a way of “increasing” the villainy of her murderers to deserve them just desserts, this isn’t a movie for you.
In fact, I’d say Mandy is a movie for a very specific audience that trends young and male, an audience seeking aesthetics over emotions and moments over story — where metaphor, or even allegory are (at best) crumbling churches, burning wives, smashed heads. Where Nicolas Cage fights a giant in a chainsaw swordfight straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. It’s midnight exploitation. It makes you feel bad.
Director / co-writer Panos Cosmatos burst onto the scene in 2010 with Beyond the Black Rainbow, which is similar in style to Mandy but lacking even that single sentence of basic plot. Both are told through close-ups, colors and a film grain made to evoke the sensitive texture of a VHS tape you weren’t supposed to find hidden under the floorboards of a psycho-derelict’s home.
Both feature otherworldly scores (in this case, the final score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, to whom this film is dedicated) and characters speaking softly in a creepily calm cadence. Rainbow is a unique a horror movie and I recommend it, even if I can’t say it’s great.
Mandy seems to promise the wedding of Cosmatos’ aesthetic to a more emotionally engaging story. But with that sentence of story, it would feel at home in a 90-minute (or 60-minute short) film. Mandy runs for two hours, and it’s only after one of those that the story actually starts. Literally. The title card pops after an hour, as if to acknowledge the official start of the film (there are two other title cards for the first two acts, but only the third act really matters to the movie — and the sound design drives that point home). For an hour, we see characters talk, cultists plot, etc. etc. But none of matters once Red loads up his vengeance tools to go killing.
The act of killing is depicted with the right amount of ferocity. Blood, guts, eyeballs, rolling heads — the brutality is sharp and visceral. Cosmatos has a handle on action, particularly the emotional climax of watching a villain experience a brutal death sequence. This all contrasts with the first hour, though, when nothing happens. Nothing. Event the sequences about Mandy and Red in their everyday lives are imbued with a strain of dark thoughts. It is disarmingly self-serious.
Mandy says nothing about the human condition. It’s all surface-level. There is nothing especially odd or disturbing about it because none of it matters. Comparison have been made to the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but those comparisons are shallow. Jodorowsky, in all his alarming oddity, has never failed to make movies about how he views the world; his visuals are metaphors, satire or desperate expression, even at their most esoteric. Mandy features Christian iconography and maybe wants to say something about religious faith but it does not land it.
I enjoyed watching most of the last half of Mandy and I think those seeking a movie with neon visuals, gorgeous music, and Nicolas Cage screaming wildly while covered in blood will be pleased. Otherwise, I’m curious to see what Cosmatos tries next, perhaps with a real script.