Mandy makes it clear in its opening minutes of neon-drenched colors and unnerving score that it’s not a movie for everyone. But if you can get on the wavelength that co-writer and director Panos Cosmatos is throwing out, then you’ll want to hold on tight and enjoy the ride. The film is an unabashed phantasmagorical ride through an eye-popping hellscape that always embraces its heavy metal and dark fantasy influences. Movies like Mandy are rare, and yet for all of its surreal imagery and tonality, Cosmatos always plays fair with the audience and doesn’t break the narrative spell despite the twisted realities where the story takes place. At its core, Mandy is a straightforward tale about love, loss, and revenge, but dressed up in the most trippy and mind-bending visuals it can find.
Loving couple Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are living out a peaceful existence in the Shadow Mountains in 1983. Red works as a lumberjack, Mandy tends a small store, and they spend their nights watching TV or just talking. While out walking one day, Mandy crosses paths with Jeremiah (Linus Roache) a failed folk singer-cum-cult leader. She catches Jeremiah’s eye, and he decides he must have her. He summons evil biker demons to kidnap Red and Mandy, and tortures Red while he attempts to seduce Mandy. But it turns out that crossing Red was a big mistake, and he’s willing to go to hell and back to get revenge on Jeremiah, his followers, and the demons.
Mandy is a movie that switches gears halfway through, but not in the way you expect. Cosmatos and his cinematographer Benjamin Loeb keep you off balance from the beginning of the movie, dazzling us with lush visuals that show we’re not exactly on our plane of reality even if what we’re left with is something similar. It’s a movie that still plays with visual highs and lows, but it grabs you from the start with its bright colors, neon palette, and off-kilter tones. We’re on an otherworldly journey, yet one anchored by a relatable love story as well as themes about toxic masculinity as represented by the repulsive Jeremiah.
What’s impressive about Mandy is that you could theoretically tell this story without all of the phantasmagorical flourishes, but that flavor is essential to giving Mandy its identity. The visuals and tone are what give Mandy its pulse and uniqueness, helping to make Red and Mandy’s love story feel unique and specific to them (the movie literally wears its heavy metal influences on its sleeve with Mandy’s Black Sabbath and Motley Crue t-shirts) rather than a general story about a sweet couple who have bad things happen to them. It would have been easy for Cosmatos to get swept away in his visuals, but he always returns us to the narrative and emotional anchor that lets us keep our bearings.
Where the movie slightly starts to get away from Cosmatos is in its second half, although for some viewers, that half is what they paid for, which is Nicolas Cage going nuts, slaying demons in the most violent manner possible, and somehow making a surreal movie even more wild and outrageous. And yet the soul of the movie is in its first half as we get to know Mandy thanks to Riseborough’s tender, thoughtful performance. With the focus primarily on Cage, we get to the indulge our bloodlust, but the film spends an hour on the potency and shortfalls of nihilistic rage. It’s a half a movie with anger and revenge as its only guide. It’s still a blast and a half to watch, but it lacks the emotional impact of the first half.
However, it’s hard to complain when you’re witnessing such a lush and bold movie as Mandy. This is the first movie since Blade Runner 2049 where I would have been content to just look at it on mute, and I hope that RLJE Films can give this movie the 4K treatment. But to be fair, if I watched the film on silent, I would miss out Johann Johannsson’s outstanding score, which isn’t just smart and brooding, but also unexpected. It would have been easy to go with a synth-heavy 80s imitation, but Johannsson is able to make the synth and uneasy notes feel unique and unexpected. The technical prowess makes Mandy a movie that’s easy to lose yourself in even if it takes you to some creepy, terrifying places.
With Mandy, Cosmatos has taken a fairly simple story about love and loss and transformed it into something unforgettable. Mandy is a movie that will sear itself into your brain with its astounding visuals, twisted hellscape, gruesome violence, and yet there’s a beating heart beneath all of it. Yes, there are wild Nicolas Cage hijinks, but there’s much more happening with Mandy, and while you’ll enjoy Cage’s performance, you’ll get lost in the marvelous movie that surrounds him.