Two souls deep in love. A pack of monstrous cultists willed by intoxicated egos. Dreamscapes dripping neon across a scathed mountain topography. The pupils of all eyes dilated by adrenaline, hallucinogens and pure, unwavering rage. Muddled religion collided with the solemn, convicted prayers of a man shattered by loss. This is the peculiar chemical concoction that worked to craft the latest from director Panos Cosmatos and star Nicolas Cage in the cosmic horror fever dream of “Mandy.” Oozing with gripping performances, a palette of breathtaking visuals and a revenge premise driven to a violent edge, “Mandy” crept out of the shadows and quickly solidified itself as a stunning mix of modern aesthetic and classic horror cinema.
The year is 1983. Hidden away deep in the primal wilderness of the Shadow Mountains, logger Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) has created an idyllic existence alongside his beautifully deceptive partner Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). Deep in love, no outside force could possibly penetrate the couple’s quiet life tucked beneath the mountains. The peaceful reality Red has made for himself shatters in an instant, as a vile band of cultists and otherworldly beasts come crashing through the glass facade of his haven. His love taken, his body wrung out and chained, his mild-manner temper shaken, Red now lives for a sole purpose — to hunt down the wretched things responsible and exact a swift and bloody revenge.
Among the realm of modern horror, which has held a steady existence of easily thwarted tropes and predictable thrills, there always seems to creep in a select few from the genre that seek to inject their unique vision into a singular, self-contained story. As the latest fall season kicks off mildly with genre films like “The Nun” and the upcoming “Halloween” continuation, the high-concept thriller to combat said franchise hopefuls arrived this month in the supernatural fever-dream of “Mandy.” In what promised to be not only a visceral tale of vengeance but also one of the most volcanic roles from actor Nicolas Cage, “Mandy” entered the playing field with the goal of becoming far beyond the latest slasher feature hidden among the Hollywood Hills.
Once I uncovered just what “Mandy” was, beneath its facade of what seemed a routine revenge premise, a number of factors drew me even closer to the distinct indie thriller. While I was never a true fan of star Nicolas Cage, though familiar to the volatile and unhinged performances across his vast career, something about the actor channeling a tempered-logger-turned-brutal-executioner promised to be the perfect addition to the supernatural revenge tale. It was also the overall look of the film, from director Panos Cosmatos and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, that truly got me invested in witnessing just what “Mandy” was all about. What began as a contemplative portrait of two souls entranced in their simplistic life evolved steadily into a nightmarish picture of hell-scapes and the single-minded rage of a broken man.
While the performances might hallmark the majority of the seedy midnight thriller, as Cage’s eruptive transformation interplayed with a number of subtle to bizarre caricatures, the true potential of “Mandy” can be seen in its production. As up-and-coming filmmaker Panos Cosmatos returned to the horror scene, the same genre that stitched his 2010 debut “Beyond the Black Rainbow” together, the director worked to craft another distinct blend of genre with “Mandy.” While “Black Rainbow” sent up a bold mixture of science fiction paranoia with the classical tropes of slasher horror, Cosmatos’ latest sought to recall some of those same tropes, all while taking a massive dive into something completely unexpected. Backed by a promising slew of producers, including fantasy/horror alum Elijah Wood, and an intoxicating score from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, “Mandy” strived to bring Cosmatos to the forefront.
Even as “Mandy” gave off an eerie subterranean vibe as it scuttled between its sadistic extremists and neon-tinted atmospherics, the cast of the film lent the project another wild card for its ambitious director to play. With such an enigmatic character as Nic Cage climbing aboard and his increasingly deranged persona continues to open his door to a plethora of off-kilter films, the lead role in logger Red Miller offered the actor the ideal chance to explore a wide range of emotion. As his quiet life — accompanied by his partner in Andrea Riseborough’s alluring Mandy — is quickly broken down, Cage’s once-hushed demeanor devolves into a manic frenzy of violent desperation. While the beginning of the film featured a less-than-zany Cage, focusing more on Riseborough’s mostly-static Mandy, once the man crossed paths with the sadistic members of a mysterious cult, the leash was let loose. Even while Cage’s fiery outbursts might be nothing new to fans of his often-comical exaggerations, watching his character dissolve into pure mayhem was surely a pleasure to watch unfold.
As Riseborough offered a far more tame performance when compared to her counterpart in Cage, her silent mysticism was opposed with even greater force by the central antagonist of the film. With English actor Linus Roache filling the shoes of a passionate zealot willed by a higher power, the deranged conception of “Mandy” was only further heightened by its enthusiastic supporting cast. As Roache’s Jeremiah Sand portrayed a crude mix between Charles Manson and Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs,” he clashed his wretched idealism with Cage’s vicious desperation. While Roache’s cult leader might not get the payoff his fervent extremist deserved, his confrontation with Red was a smashing but unsurprising conclusion for the film; it was the leading radical and his followers that brought further enjoyment to the maniacal and psychedelic tone of “Mandy”.
The visuals of “Mandy,” which included everything from neon-drenched bloodshed and shadowy mountain scenery to dreamlike color mixing and innovative camera work, ran parallel to one of the film’s other major highlights. Just as Cosmatos sought to paint a nightmarish homage to classic horror behind the camera, he also worked to capture a striking auditory experience as well. With the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson delving into his latest layer of eerie, methodical soundscapes (after scoring such films as “Arrival” and “Sicario”), the artist managed to draw out the sadistic yet slow-burning feeling of “Mandy” through a superb mix of moody atmospherics and wailing metal rock. Resulting in surely one of the most exhilarating scores I’ve heard all year, one of Jóhannsson’s last works could likely be his most timely.
Overall, the sophomore piece of filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’ “Mandy” made for a thrilling experience at the theater. Backed by not only a riveting musical score but an unflinching tale of passion, vengeance and the violent limits that lie between, the seedy thriller presented a visually-entrancing horror epic with a phenomenal set of characters. Even while some of its characterization might border the realm of stereotype and certain splashes of its stimuli might not fit the film to perfection, “Mandy” brought yet another bold independent horror effort to the forefront of my attention. Promising plenty more than simply the latest in a long line of zany Nic Cage-starring features, “Mandy” is the psychedelic revenge romp of the fall season.
‘Mandy’ is now playing in select theaters in Charlotte.