There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Mandy embodies the spirit of heavy metal more than any other movie in recent memory. If you have ever gone to a metal show, shaking your fist toward the sky in triumph, then you know what that catharsis is like. For the uninitiated, or those who don’t own any Black Sabbath shirts, director Panos Cosmatos has made a hallucinatory, violent revenge thriller. Describing the film’s plot doesn’t do it any justice, since its moods, formal daring, and copious bloodshed have the cumulative effect of leaving audiences slack-jawed with wonder. Most audiences will find this too over-the-top, but for the small subset that are on its wavelength, Mandy just might be one of the year’s best films.
Cosmatos sets the mood with the opening credits. King Crimson’s “Starless” plays over them, a languid prog-rock song punctuated by pulverizing guitar licks. In what looks like the Pacific Northwest, Red (Nicolas Cage) lives with his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Their life is simple, quiet: She likes to read bizarre fantasy novels, while he is happy to relax with her in front of the TV. One night, Mandy gets the attention of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a New Age cult leader with a sadistic streak. On a whim, he has his disciples capture Mandy because he thinks she’s a kindred spirit. The kidnapping and its aftermath leave Red a husk of himself, so he has no alternative but to go after Jeremiah, along with the leather-bound psychos who have taken too much experimental LSD.
The look of Mandy is key to its effect. Cosmatos and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb oversaturate the frame with color, so there are long sequences where we only see deep reds, purples, and blues. Coupled with few establishing shots, at least until the end, the film has an isolated, post-apocalyptic feel. Many takes are long, brooding, and solemn. While the film uses digital cameras, it captures the grainy feel of slasher films from the early 1980s (albeit with more artistry). The music by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson is not heavy metal, exactly, but it has the same deep bass and ominous sound to it. Mandy oscillates between silence and over- whelming sound, until watching it feels like a dizzying contact high.
The film is split into two halves. The first is about tragedy, while the second is about revenge. It takes a while before Red embarks on his violent rampage, but Cosmatos and Cage ensure you are ready for it. It’s not just that Cage is terrific in this film, although he is. It’s that Cage finally has a project where a director has a vision that matches his propensity for excess. Most films and filmmakers are simply too timid to reach his level, but what he accomplishes in Mandy is revelatory. There is a long, painful scene where Red watches Mandy get tortured. Cage is not overacting here, but instead has the look of an ordinary man whose humanity and love are extinguished from within. By the time Red is wielding chainsaws and soaked in blood, you’ll be on the same page.
Mandy’s violence is unapologetically bonkers. One of the more understated moments comes when Red fights someone, sets him on fire, and then chops off his head. There are buckets of blood in this film, and they have the thick pinkish color you find in old movies. This is entertaining in pure genre terms, yet Cosmatos has a deeper purpose to it. This is the rare grindhouse entertainment where the hero’s vengeance matches the transgressions against him. Reduced to a husk, there is a remarkable sequence where Red drinks an entire bottle of liquor while sobbing at the top of his lungs (he does this without wearing pants). This isn’t campy or fun. It’s operatic, and it takes an actor of Cage’s courage to pull off this tragedy. This isn’t a subtle film, but it isn’t a simple one, either.
On top of the violence, there are gloriously trippy sequences. At one point, Jeremiah drugs and hypnotizes Mandy, while Cosmatos overlays their faces until it’s way creepier than any Snapchat filter. Jeremiah is a particularly nasty villain: His outward confidence betrays an incredibly fragile ego, so the way Red/Mandy humiliate him reveals a masculinity at its most toxic. Mandy unfolds like a living nightmare, one where the revenge is so specific and brutal that it must come from an emotionally honest place. We all have daydreamed about what we would like to do to our enemies, in a world without consequences. Mandy visualizes that fantasy in such a complete way that you might end up gasping for air.
Mandy opens Thursday for one night only at Regal Cinemas everywhere.