Film Review: Mandy

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Mandy, directed by Panos Cosmatos and staring Nicholas Cage, Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache.

This review contains plot points for the film Mandy.

Image taken from fim Mandy, directed by Panos Cosmatos, produced by SpectreVision et al, streamed on Kanopy database.

MANDY

From it’s opening moments, drenched in the bombastic waves of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s metallic score, Mandy is a picture that announces itself as something that demands attention.  We are currently being flooded with sub-par movies that slap a retro font on their titles (ITC Benguiat has proven to be exceptionally popular), shove a bunch of lazy clichés at us and declare themselves to be a knowing throwback to the 1970s or 80s, a time when life was simpler, we chomped popcorn and hollered at the slightly wobbly excess on our screens in delight. False revisionism aside, and with very rare exceptions, these movies often do not deliver, and will be consigned to the digital purgatory that rightfully awaits them. Mandy is an example of the one percent that is as intense, unique and actually respectful of it’ roots as promised.

Briefly, the plot: It is 1983, and Mandy Bloom lives a peaceful life with her partner Red Miller in a remote cabin. Their lives are each other – in these serene woods, away from the world, they have turned their backs on painful pasts and have found a genuine bliss in each other. Until, as you do, they run afoul of a locally based murderous cult that will force them into a flaming, gory opera of retribution.  Is it ludicrous? Yes. Is it also a stunning example of a movie leaning into its potential and wringing something like art from raw materials that are most often used to build garbage? Yes indeed.

Panos Cosmatos, the director, has already tried his hand at elevated genre work with the 2010 feature Beyond the Black Rainbow – a film whose ambition and sleek, fluorescent neon design were hindered by a lack of any kind of character to connect with. Panos’ father, George could be seen as having established a template of sorts for his son to follow. As the director of Rambo: First Blood Pt 2, Leviathan and the 1986 feature Cobra (amongst others), he laid down a gauntlet of films that managed to stick to the requisite touchstones needed from 1980s American action cinema, while layering a gauze of fever-dream madness to the proceedings. The sweaty, bug-eyed mania of Rambo and particularly his vision in Cobra of a world saturated in fiendish shades of red, populated by darkly cartoonish characters are directly locked into the dna of Cosmatos Jr’s work so far, and it’s all the more fascinating for it. 

Using Nicholas Cage in any movie is a statement. This is an actor who has weathered so many peaks and valleys in his career, and whose screen presence over the last decade has fluctuated between outright mania and bored, mumbling indifference that his presence can feel like a roll of the dice for the audience. We will not be able to predict him, good or bad, that much is guaranteed. He has become a genuinely unique presence – often mocked by the public, but with a degree of caution or respect intact. A role like Red Miller here, in a movie as carefully crafted as this, shows how the live-wire ferocity of peak Cage can be tapped into and pushed into places that make it the engine for a greater chaos machine, as opposed to the mere flailing that is often just left to sit there as an over-used punchline for lesser directors. Here, the movie is up to the intensity of its star and the bonding of the two makes something close to magic. 

Andrea Riseborough as the titular Mandy is where the movie finds itself on shakier ground. Riseborough is an astounding actor – her recent performances in the mini-series Zerozerozero, Brandon Cronenberg's haunting Possessor, and the Black Mirror episode "Crocodile" are all razor sharp examples of how to convey an intelligent, ruthless intensity that sits on the opposite end of the spectrum to Cage’s angry bear approach. She is equally great here, filling Mandy with a kindness and ferocity that make her mid-film death all the more disappointing. I firmly believe that criticising a movie simply because the plot didn’t go where you wanted it to, is lazy, entitled and pointless – let the artist have their say. However, the need for Mandy to die so that she can act as a catalyst for our heroes' revenge quest is not only the most tired, predictable trope in action media (movies, comics, video games, you name it and it’s littered with women sacrificed at the altar of male motivation), it’s also a wasted opportunity for the traditional roles to be flipped or at least examined. Seeing Riseborough as the pike-wielding angel of bloody vengeance in the film’s final act would have simply been a more interesting spectacle. Mandy (the film) is very much a success in its homage to the brazen, explosive qualities of 1980’s action/horror, but we don’t need to drag the misogynistic tropes of the past into a new century. Movies as diverse as The Babadook, Let the bodies tan, or The Night comes for us (amongst dozens of other excellent genre works) are clear examples of this. Culture evolves, even culture that involves decapitations and immolations. 

As it is, Mandy pushes through it’s ever increasing levels of extremity to become some kind of mad Renaissance Painting, or a wild animal frozen in amber to be examined and studied.  Cosmatos is a director that we should be excited about – both Mandy and Beyond the Black Rainbow end up at this place of contemplation as opposed to immersion, but here we’re getting closer to something with a heart. Both are aesthetically appealing to people (like me) of a certain taste, with Rainbow as the chilly vision of cold war era paranoia and blank-slate techno dread, while Mandy’s berserk heavy metal airbrush aesthetic ticks as many boxes as it can on its freeway to.... well, who knows where?

Further reading

  • Cinema: On 'Mandy', capitalist media, and the working class. Murchu, Oisin O; 2018, Nov 28. Guardian (Sydney), No.1850, p.5. (article)
  • Night of the Demons. Ellinger, Kat; 2018. Sight and Sound; Vol.28 (11), pp.28-30. (article)
  • Edge or Darkness. Marcks, Iain; 2018. American Cinematographer; Vol.99(10), pp.46-50, 52-53. (article)
  • A rock opera, with blood; Victoria-raised director Panos Cosmatos getting rave reviews for manic Mandy. Devlin, Mike; 2018, Sep 21. Times - Colonist; p.C.9. (article
  • Inside Nicolas Cage’s Most Insane, Hell-Raising Performance Yet: Filmmaker Panos Cosmatos opens up about his surreal revenge-nightmare ‘Mandy,’ starring Nicolas Cage as a scythe-wielding man out to avenge his beloved. Schager, Nick; 2018, Sep 14. The Daily Beast. (article)
  • Cult filmmakers : 50 movie mavericks you need to know. Haydn Smith, Ian ; Rodeia, Kristelle (ill); London, England : White Lion Publishing ; 2019. (ebook)
  • A history of horror. Wheeler W. Dixon; New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press ; c2010 (ebook)
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While I am not a fan of the genre, at all, this is a nuanced review with many layers of relatable comparisons and 'positionings' that inspired me to watch it - almost!..am still way too squeamish...That said: If I ever get back into this particular headspace, I will seek out Mandy : )
Great writing, Lance!