We critics are suckers for directors who tart up genre exercises, and Mandy is one painted tart. Jacking up the pitch of grindhouse horror fare, writer-director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black) never once winks at the audience: Mandy is a slasher film treated as Persona. But tarting up and jacking up also tried my patience. There is no reason why this thing should be two hours long and this hysterically (over)directed.
For tarting up and jacking up a script, casting directors turn to Nicolas Cage, rarin’ to go as Red, a logger who lives with his artist girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, evoking Shelley Duvall) in the Shadow Mountains a few years in the 1980s. Cage in reactive mode gets few moments to Cage up the material, but his pot belly and chain smoking and Mannerist extremities position him as an object scary enough to cover the eyes of your kids. The projection of ardor is Cage’s most recognizable quality as a performer, and when he and Riseborough lie in bed sharing memories their body language gives off a satisfying hum. Riseborough is appealing too: it’s rare in movies that a female artist creates the sense that she inhabits a private world which she’ll leave at a time of her choosing. Perhaps this is why the Children of the New Dawn cult want her.
Using grainy stock and awash in the bleached oranges and indigos of The Ban album sleeves and spare tire cover art on a period Econoline van, Mandy takes place almost completely at night; it takes its cues from “Starless,” the sad whirring King Crimson mock epic releaesd a decade earlier (the late Jóhann Jóhannsson composed the score). Silences and sustained moments obsess Cosmatos. Shots are supposed to stand out: a God’s-eye view of Red and his rowboat at the center of a lake: Mandy’s head afloat in darkness like Marlon Brando’s in Apocalypse Now; abrupt dissolves and uses of slo-mo. When the cultists pop in, they’re a lively bunch, led by a vanilla-faced enthusiast named Jeremiah (Linus Roache, a welcome face). With the help of a gruesome biker gang called the Black Skulls, costumed like the dancers in a Madonna stage performance, Brother Swan kidnaps Mandy, drug her with a wasp and LSD, and present her to Jeremiah. Besides the blond hair swept behind his ears, the most terrifying fact about him is that he’s a folk singer. “Let us be so very special together,” he says in a monologue to Mary and facing the camera, filmed by Cosmatos as a kind of presentation to viewers too.
But Mandy doesn’t return to its antecedents in period gore fests until Red, held captive by the New Dawn, escapes and exacts revenge. His unlikely ally? A crossbow the size of a cruise ship, in Cage’s hands an instrument as necessary to his artistic independence as the piano was to Aretha. When the crossbow fails, there’s a chainsaw, used in a climactic duel with a cultist that has the air of Luke and Darth Vader clashing on the Bespin gantry. This is the Nicolas Cage we came to see. I should point out that Mandy contains a scene in which Cosmatos lingers on the destruction of a certain corpse in what I consider a gratuitous and almost offensive manner. I get it: we’re supposed to feel the loved one’s agony. If Mandy had been total trash, I’d accept it, but Cosmatos, whose Beyond the Black demonstrated he knows how fast every blade of grass will grow to the millimeter, has pretensions. But nobody can out-pulp Cage. After dispatching a few cultists to the hell they deserve, Red, as reward and anesthetic, takes huge drags from partially smoked cigarettes, booches up snow piles of coke, or chugs vodka. What else ya got?