Mandy - There's a chainsaw fight and a Nightbeast reference, what more do you need to know?
Mandy, Starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache and Bill Duke is the latest indie darling/art-house horror/Nic Cage film that is setting the internet ablaze and movie critics reaching for the hyperbolic adjectives. It’s almost the perfect film for the current generation of movie goers: it’s arty enough for the critics, hip enough for the nonchalant, above-everything crowd, gory and violent enough for the hardcore genre fans and it stars Nic Cage so even the “oh my god he’s just so crazy”, “so-bad-it’s-good” meme makers are happy.
Directed by Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow), son of George P - who made Rambo: First Blood pt. 2, Cobra, Tombstone, Leviathan and who, unfairly and incorrectly in my opinion, the rumour mill has decided simply stood there while Stallone, Russell and other stars did all the “real” directing - Mandy tells the story of loving couple Red Miller and Mandy Bloom. Living in the Pacific north west in 1983, Red (Cage) works as a forestry worker while Mandy (Riseborough) is an artist and works in a local shop. Their idyllic, private and quiet life is soon torn asunder, in a vile and brutal way, by a drugged up, hippy, religious cult, accompanied by three insane bikers. Cage then goes all mental and revengy on them, having borrowed a cross bow from a random cameoing Bill Duke and forging his own, both futuristic and ancient, scythe/sword thing.
From there it gets violent, bloody and darkly comic and features a recurring tiger motif, genre homages a plenty and a legitimately bad ass chainsaw fight.
Mandy is an odd film to review because it comes surrounded with a minefield of cliches that a ton of reviewers are already stumbling over: the aforementioned Nic Cageness of it all, the repeated nods to other genre films and the desire to jump on the bandwagon and simply praise the thing based on its arty, visual style alone.
So let’s get into it then. I like Nicolas Cage as an actor. Not in an ironic way, not in an aloof way but just in a genuine way. He’s a good actor. Does he occasionally over act and does he ever give strange line readings? Yes - see almost any decent actor out there. However once actors become memes or internet flavours of the month it can be very difficult. Actors can become personalities, parodies of themselves and while that might improve their brand, it tarnishes their talent. Will you be a Christopher Walken and acknowledge it but just continue doing what you’ve always done or will you be a Jeff Goldblum and go full maximum Goldblum, letting it define you? Well I think Cage is sticking on he Walken side of that equation.
He does too many movies and the roles are too diverse for you to ever pigeonhole the Cage method. Contrary to popular belief he is not an Eric Roberts, taking any single film idea offered to him. When you look through his filmography and actually watch a few of the films (as opposed to just ironically watching The Wicker Man remake stoned and laughing or sharing memes of his hair in Bangkok Dangerous) you’ll find an actor in the enviable position of working in whatever genre likes, telling weird and wonderful stories and having tremendous fun into the bargain. He’s not beholden to Hollywood narrow-mindedness or to fan pressure to just keep doing one type of thing. Not many people in the business can claim that.
When it comes to Mandy, also consider these two bits of information:
Cage was offered the role of the manic, charismatic and egotistical preacher Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). This is the obvious Cage role, in a movie with barely any dialogue, Jeremiah has all the pontificating, grandstanding and mood-swinging we’ve seen Cage do previously. Cage instead pushed to get the role of Red Miller, a role that director Panos Cosmatos intended for a much younger actor. Now, Red Miller has his moments and there is definitely a drizzling of unhinged Cage in the film but the role is also defined by its silence and by its screams, not its dialogue or its mania.
I have heard reviews single out a bathroom sequence, where he drinks vodka while in unimaginable pain, as Cage doing his “thing”. I didn’t find the sequence “classic weird Cage”, I actually found it understandable, moving and disturbing.
The film really hinges on us following his journey both emotionally and physically. Like a silent film, Mandy relies on its visuals and action to tell its, relatively, limited story and allows for audience interpretation and extrapolation. If Nic Cage’s performance doesn’t work, if you’re not gripped by his plight and pushed forward by his determination for retribution then none of it really works.
The second bit of information is that during an interview with filmmaker Kevin Smith, Nic Cage admitted not only to watching Panos Cosmatos’ previous film Beyond the Black Rainbow but to watching Kevin Smith’s “walrus movie” Tusk. No one mentions the “walrus movie” in an interview unless they’ve actually seen it. Smith was talking about Valley Girl, if Cage wanted to simply repay the compliment he’d say Chasing Amy, Clerks or something he might have watched at a film festival once. No, Cage dropped Tusk and not in a knowing way but in a genuine, nerdy “I like weird” movies way. That tells me a lot about Nicolas Cage.
So now that we’ve got ol’ Nic out of the way, what about the rest of the cast? what about the rest of the film?
Well Andrea Riseborough as Mandy is damn near mute, saying only a few things in the movie and, spoilers (not-really), the plot involves her exiting the film early on. What we can ascertain, however, is that she is peaceful, detached, likes art, fantasy novels, 80s metal, sci-fi films (more on that later) and living out in the middle of nowhere. An unexplained scar on her face and her quiet removal from society indicates maybe some past trauma but that is never developed upon.
More than anyone else in the film, her character’s apparent passions and taste define the influences on the film. The strong, deep, vivid colour palette of the cinematography, the cinematic references, the metal album cover references, the designs of the bikers and even a few animated sequences all seem to flow from what we see of Mandy Bloom during act one of the film.
The other cast member that definitely deserves a mention is Linus Roach as Jeremiah Sands. While no clear philosophy or message comes through his babbling preacher and variety of messed up followers - a hodge podge of crazies, true believers and lost and damaged souls - Sands is a frustrated musician, ego maniacal lunatic, mood swinging abuser and deluded psychopath. On the surface he’s just an amalgam of any other clichéd cult leader but, as previously stated, Mandy is short on exposition but shows you just enough of any character that you can extrapolate most of what is trying to be portrayed. The true genius moment of his character is when he puts on his record, hoping that his drippy, psychedelic, pastiche folk stylings will impress Riseborough’s Mandy. For those in the know about music and cult leader cliches it is a belly laugh moment.
Panos Cosmatos definitely wrote and made this film for people who have seen films like this before but who, probably, haven’t seen one presented like this before. In other words he trusts a savvy audience to fill in some of the blanks. I think the artistic sheen on the movie, and clearly very deft cinematic skill with which it’s constructed may push some to believe the film is deep in someway but, don’t be fooled, this film is an exploitation film pure and simple. Just because they skimped on character and plot explanations, shot it with a bunch of lights and filters, scored it with tension building rumbles and high, unnerving synth tones and left wide gaps for the audience to fill in doesn’t mean there’s some hidden message or explanation there. It just means Panos Cosmatos knows how to construct a good genre film. He knows that in most horror, action and/or exploitation films you point the audience at a bad guy, put the good guy through hell and with that justify the carnage filled journey of our anti-hero for the remaining 70 minutes.
I’m sure there are reasons for some of the tiger imagery and some of the vaguries in the film but its driving force is exploitation, cool moments, bad ass kills, mad weaponry, Argento style lighting, movie references all over the shop and hip t-shirts.
An easy criticism would be to say it is style over substance and it is, it’s glorious, arresting, eerie, difficult, dark, disturbing, mad, violent, deeply coloured and surreal style over substance.
I have to confess that while watching it I did initially wrestle with the part of me that says “yes, yes, yes this is all very pretty and mysterious, well done, but stop with the tricks and tell me what’s going on.” There were also other moments where scenes went on far too long and were filmed in such a disorientating way that I wished I could see what was going on better.
There was one scene, however, that sold the whole film to me and made me love it unequivocally - what are you talking about Jon? The chainsaw fight? are you talking about the chainsaw fight because that shit is off the chain! - No, I am not talking about the epic chainsaw battle, although that shit is, indeed, off the chain. I am talking about a sequence that’ll probably mean very little to a lot of people but allow me to explain why the Nightbeast scene in Mandy is EVERYTHING.
During the opening 15 minutes of the movie as we meet Mandy and Red, see their life together, and see their love for each other, there is a sequence where the two of them watch a sci-fi B Movie together. They eat TV dinners, at separate tables, on the couch and arm chair and do not take their eyes off the TV screen. A TV Screen which is showing Don Dohler’s Nightbeast.
Don Dohler is the Baltimore native filmmaker who made alien invasion movies, mad horror/action films, straight-to-video slashers and nudey vampire films in the quiet suburbs, at the end of a nondescript cul-de-sac, in Maryland. We here at The After Movie Diner website are huge fans, have covered his films on the podcast and interviewed his biographer, John Kinhart and some of his regular cast. You can find out more here.
Unfortunately, in this age of snarky ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ film fandom, some of Don’s films have been either derisively enjoyed or simply dismissed by some people. This is a crushing shame because when you look passed their limited budgets and occasional amateur moments, you find a passionate, creative, inventive, weird, gonzo and original series of homemade masterpieces from a person who followed his dream and collected a loyal group of hardworking actors, make up effects artists, photographers, monster suit builders and fans around him. He should be an inspiration to the backyard John Carpenters and basement Hitchcocks of today - in fact in his home town of Baltimore he has been and indie filmmaking thrives there.
This is why the scene in Mandy where Nic Cage and Andrea Riseborough sit so seriously and intently glued to Nightbeast is the best scene in the film. They don’t laugh, they don’t mock it, they are genuinely into it and this tells us b-movie fans all we need to know about their relationship. I am the first to admit that low budget filmmaking is not for everyone but when you find that person who will, un-cynically, watch a Don Dohler film (or similar) with you, then you have found true love and a soulmate. When I saw that scene, I understood the film. In lesser hands the couple would’ve watched The Room or Birdemic and laughed at it in an ugly, derisive, “better-than-it” way and I would’ve hated it. I would’ve turned off right then. But use Don Dohler’s Nightbeast to express a couple’s quiet, contented, enthralled love for it and each other? Then I am all in.
To sum up then - the film Mandy sticks with you, it’s a different and utterly dazzling presentation of a standard revenge/action/horror film. It boldly and unapologetically splashes colour everywhere, plays with high contrast lighting, wears its film references on its sleeve, leaves out crap it doesn’t have time for, has an oblique, surreal, mischievous and dark sense of humour, submerges you deep and drenches you in the grimy, gooey, bloody hell of lead protagonist Red Miller (Cage) and crafts love and loss from the simplistic, natural past-time of just being with the right person, watching the right movie or reading the right book.
The acting is superb, the action is worth a good whoop and holla and whatever you do go check it out at the cinema. The downside to getting this film for review was watching it on a digital screener - Mandy begs, no, demands you see it on the biggest screen possible. If you love genre films, don’t hesitate, do it.
In Theaters September 14th
Run Time: 121 minutes | Rating: Not Rated
Social Media: #MandyMovie