It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Barf. That is a b.s. Hallmark sentiment from Alfred Lord Tennyson regarding the death of a loved one, but often spewed in romcoms after our protagonist suffers a particularly nasty breakup. Sweet, necessary melancholy. Go screw.
The reality is that for those that have truly loved, the absence of such vital and connective human warmth is more than just devastating. It’s apocalyptic. The resulting void left in the center of one’s soul can only be filled with rage. Mandy is the manifestation of that disastrous, annihilating anger and Nicolas Cage is its righteous servant.
The revenge film is nothing new, and we need less rather than more. The motions its heroes happily partake are often obvious, boring, and rampantly gratuitous. Death Wish codified the structure, and Oldboy dragged its participants (and audience) to the very depths of misery exposing the futility of the engine driving the genre. The cruel arithmetic of two dug graves forever solved. All wannabes need not apply.
Writer/director Panos Cosmatos is not interested in the mechanics of revenge. He is here only to detail the Armageddon unleashed when your lover is snatched from your bedside. Mandy does not sit easily next to Mad Max or Kill Bill. There is no cheering or fist-pumping as hateful assassins are dispatched with deadly capability. There is only the everlasting scream of loss.
As King Crimson hazily begins its serenade over the film’s opening black frame, the last words of convicted murderer Douglas Roberts materialize vibrantly before the viewer, “When I die/bury me deep/lay two speakers at my feet/put some headphones/around my head/and rock and roll me/when I’m dead.” Mere seconds into the proceedings and you are forever bound to dread. Whatever moments of beauty or happiness you witness early on in the runtime are scarred with impending catastrophe. Cosmatos announces up front, the metal heart of Mandy beats black and loud.
Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) is in awe of the woman who accepts his embrace. Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) searches for deep answers within pulp sci-fi paperbacks and astronomy textbooks. She seeks meaning while he dare not question his good fortune.
Squirreled away within a cabin in the woods, under an uncaring cascade of stars, the two lovers playfully argue over their favorite planets. Mandy is struck by the perpetually turbulent storm blasting across Jupiter, and Red jokingly longs for the comic book destruction of Galactus. Their laughter won’t last. Cosmic darkness does approach.
While out strolling backwoods roads, Mandy proudly rocks her Black Sabbath tanktop. Like a moth to a flame, a passing musician-turned-pretend-messiah (Linus Roache) is immediately transfixed. He must have her for his flock, and he sends his goons to retrieve her. We’re not talking mere Charlie Manson psycho-hippies. Horns are blown, demons are summoned, lives are vanquished.
With Mandy stolen from his existence, Red succumbs to a great despair. He allows a moment to wallow, but then a mission must be struck. Those that perpetrated his nightmare must be forced to share a similar hell. Hunting crazy evil demands crossbows, battle axes, and absurdly sized chainsaws. When the reaper is required, Bill Duke is there to cameo as the trailer park buddy who knows a little too much about all parties involved. Black skulls, nightriders, and what now? The terror Red faces lives up to the crimes committed. The devil is not a metaphor.
Nicolas Cage has waded through a murky sea of bizarre B-movie performances to reach the meticulously tormented shore of Mandy. As this latest herald of vengeance, Cage personifies grief passed over for hate. The setting may be wild, the villains may be astonishing, but Cage reveals no Hollywood pleasure in the actions Red takes to expunge his pain. He grounds Mandy as a recognizable outcry of agony. I cannot imagine another actor pulling it off.
In his previous film, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos drifted through a similar blend of genre and nostalgia. That film sat with me for a good long time, but I’m still not sure of its particulars or emotions. I dug it, but it remains at a distance. There is no confusion or doubt where Mandy is concerned. This film howls. As I listen to it, I discover that shriek erupts from myself. Its fury is my own.
At times Mandy looks as if it desperately wants to be painted upon the side of a van. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb saturates the image in the fantasies cultivated by its heroine. This is the realm of Julie Bell, Mœbius, and Frank Frazetta. It’s a film that deserves more than a thumbnail in your digital library, and yes, you’ll crave a faux VHS box to contain its treasures.
However, for all it’s referential winks and nods, Mandy is an utterly perceptible expression of humanity. Cosmatos and Cage fire their hearts upon the screen. The aftermath should not be dismissed as merely grindhouse gold, but as a sincere representation of loss.