Regardless of whatever name you prefer to use for the musical sub-genre known colloquially as ‘geek rock’, ‘nerd punk’ and so on, that comprises the likes of Ben Kweller, The Dead Milkmen, maybe even the slightly more hardcore Mad Capsule Markets etc; it has its niche. It works for its intended audience because it is clearly made for a person of a particular persuasion. It doesn’t have much broad appeal, but that’s OK.
Similarly, Panos Cosmatos’ hazy, unconventional neon-drenched Mandy has a target audience in mind. It’s an audience that is a bit of a geek, perhaps they enjoy getting stoned, watching old, gory grindhouse movies and listening to Slayer on repeat whilst playing their NES console. It might only be a target audience of ‘one’ (specifically Cosmatos himself) but dammit, it works. For that audience.
A slither of a traditional revenge thriller is slathered with big handfuls of grotesque images, great big chunks of nightmare fuel and slops of pink and blue lighting. Mandy is dirty, filthy and hideous. As Red (Nicholas Cage) attempts to wreak revenge against the cult led by the sadistic Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) who did harm to his lover Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).
To go back to the music analogy for a second: if punk rock (albeit geek/nerd punk etc) chews up and spits out a mangled but raw and defiant piece of music, then metal just bashes that piece of music’s head in. It lies it down, puts two kick-stands against its head, and just pedals the music’s head into submission. Mandy often feels like having your head bashed in. Sure, it’s fuelled by a grindhouse nostalgia with nods and winks to more films than I could recognise, but it simply batters the viewer with a relentless, non-stop, full-on tidal wave of sheer unquantifiable madness. If a film could physically mutilate and bludgeon its audience, then Mandy would be the Jack the Ripper of the industry.
The title card appears midway through the runtime as Red begins his assault against the demonic motorbike-riding things, distorting the pace from deliberately tortuous and slow, to being so fast that it’s all just one big blur of blood, giant chainsaws battles and nude cartoons. It’s almost unfathomable how Mandy was even pitched, let alone constructed and released. It is every bit as bonkers as its reputation decrees; but it ultimately fails to convince as the entertaining experience purported.
The waking-nightmare that is the opening half of the film is filled with tediously long and dreary scenes of Cage and Riseborough staring at a TV, sharing tales of their dreams, and wholly cringe-inducing dialogue. If it seems unnatural or other-worldly, then one can assume this is an artistic choice by Cosmatos and he absolutely nails it. Yet the repetitively nauseating ambience bores more than it thrills.
In a mid-point tonal shift more brazen than even that of From Dusk Til Dawn, everything increases in magnitude. The marketing around Mandy focusses a lot on how Cage gets more ‘Cage’-ier here than he has done since perhaps Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant remake or the miserable failure that was The Wicker Man. But an emotional breakdown in a bathroom feels like something ripped from a 70s British kitchen-sink drama and inserted in the middle of a b-movie fanfiction. Cage’s confessions in a caravan – much though it sounds like an Alan Partridge-pitched TV series – are equally as cringe. As the praise is heaped on ol’ Nic for his part in this discombobulating horror(?), it is a tad overblown. Aside from a scene where he rips barbed wire from his wrists and mouth, he shines brightest during his fierce interactions with other people and those things, rather than in scenes where he breaks down like Apocalypse Now‘s Martin Sheen if he’d forgotten where he parked in a multi-storey car park.
Don’t get me wrong, it is great to see Cage unleashed – and his performance is so original and unlike anything most other actors could pull off. He can play a nutter like few others can only dream of. His maniacal and sinister joy derived from the revenge he’s enacting is fantastic amounts of fun to watch.
And it’s the latter half of the movie where the most fun can be found (and it is fun for the most part) but it is nigh-on incomprehensible. As Callum states in his London Film Festival coverage, it is also “very, very, very silly”. There seems simply no way to tell how much of it is meant to be laughed at for the ridiculousness of it all, and how much is meant to be appreciated for being a multi-layered piece of art? The right thing to do is give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is poking fun at itself and the movies it homages when it means to and complimenting their gung-ho nature.
Clearly, Cosmatos had a vision for what Mandy should be; and how it turned out is presumably exactly how he foresaw it. It is weird, complex, daft, intelligent, dynamic, boring, exhilarating, tiresome, ferocious, cutting and crazy all at the same time. There is only one way to view Mandy: through one raised eyebrow.
Mandy releases on Blu-Ray, DVD, Digital Download and limited-edition VHS-Blu-Ray today, 29 October. Seen it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.