Deep in the wilderness of the Pacific North-West, Red, a humble woodcutter, lives a quiet, peaceful existence with his wife, Mandy. Their days consist of work, watching old sci-fi movies, and reading trashy fantasy novels while they snuggle in bed. In short, all the best things in life. But one day, as Mandy is walking home, she catches the eye of Jeremiah, a failed folk singer turned cult leader, who, thanks to his twisted interpretation of the gospel, believes that God has created everything on this Earth for his pleasure, including women, and so summons a gang of demonic bikers to bring her into his fold. When he tries to seduce her, however, she laughs at him, and, in a rage, burns her to death before Red’s own eyes. This destroys the man, who, now having nothing to lose, gathers weapons, and sets out to take vengeance upon the ones who murdered his love.
On paper, Mandy sounds like a B movie; like a film that was released in the 70s as part of a double bill, only to be forgotten, and then re-discovered many years later on late-night television. And, in a sense, it is. It certainly has the dressings of an exploitation flick–cults, drugs, over-the-top violence–but this film is made with far too much maturity and craft to be written off as simple sleaze. The first 40 minutes or so have no blood, or narcotics, and consist of many scenes where we watch Red and Mandy living their lives. There’s very little dialogue, and much of the mood is established through music and visual allegory. And when horrible stuff starts happening, it’s not presented in a cathartic or glorious fashion. Red is shown as a broken man, whose single-minded quest for revenge is driving him insane. Many other revenge flicks flirt with that idea–the notion that violence psychologically destroys its perpetrators–but very few actually convey that message. Mandy is one of them. A large part of this has to do with Nicolas Cage’s absolutely stellar performance as Red. He’s an actor whose become something of a joke in recent years, due to his many over-the-top performances in bad VOD releases and blockbusters. But what we often forget is that he is an artist of considerable nuance, as can be seen in such acclaimed films as Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation, and Joe. In Mandy, he does scream and flail about, but only after we watch him go through absolute hell. For the first 40 minutes, he’s quiet and restrained. It’s only after we see his life literally get burned to the ground that he starts to wail, and, even then, it’s not funny. There were a few people in my audience who chuckled a little in one particular scene where Cage is howling in his bathroom, but that laughter quickly subsided when the realization hit that what we were watching wasn’t funny. It’s heartbreaking. This is a man who just watched his wife get burned to a crisp. Of course he’d be crying. And that’s what I loved about this movie, the fact that, as heightened as the violence and situations got in the second half, the filmmakers played things razor straight, and took pains to portray the effects that these events would have on people’s psyches realistically. And that’s not even getting into the craftsmanship on display.
This is a hauntingly beautiful movie. The term “nightmarish” gets tossed about a lot when describing horror films, but Mandy really does feel that way. The deep red filter over everything, the pulsing synth score, the weird effects the director uses on people’s voices to make them sound like they’re under water, it all creates the mood of a fever dream one can’t escape. There’s also a lot of trippy imagery, like one scene where Jeremiah is talking to Mandy, and their faces start to meld together, that just gets under your skin. As I said before, Cage’s work in this film is top notch, but the rest of the cast, which consists of Law & Order’s Linus Roache, and Birdman’s Andrea Riseborough, hold their own as well. This movie certainly has much better acting than the grind house fare it so clearly draws inspiration from. But what I really loved about this film was its atmosphere. Even though it’s set in, and clearly draws from, the 1980s, there’s something weirdly timeless about this story. The imagery and sound effects are so heightened, and the characters are drawn in such broad strokes that the film, at times, feels like a fairy tale, almost like an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood on Acid, with Cage as the Wood Cutter, Riseborough as Red Riding Hood, and the cult as the Big Bad Wolf. I’ll bet you anything that this was deliberate. In fact, I know it is, because the movie actually wants you to think that supernatural events are occurring, just so it can subvert your expectations later on. And in case you’re a gore hound who doesn’t care about artistic merit, this flick has some of the bloodiest deaths ever put to film. So there’s something in here for you to.
Guys, what can I say? I loved this movie. It’s wonderfully-acted, superbly scored, and possesses a look and atmosphere that’s both stylish and functional. It’s extremely violent, and understands that this violence is harmful. It’s got cross bows, chainsaws, and true emotional weight. It’s a classic in the making. Please, please, please go see it if you can.