MANDY: Nic's Grin is the Only Feature!

When STRANGER THINGS debuted, many noticed how the logo and chapter credits evoked classic Stephen King paperback covers. Panos Cosmatos’s latest feature MANDY does a similar trick with the covers of the kind of books you find chronicled in the incredible collection PAPERBACKS FROM HELL. You may recall the foil lettered covers of horror and fantasy covers of the late ’80s and early ’90s. If so, you’ll know the look and vibe I am talking about.

Besides spotting that influence, however, does MANDY have anything to offer film fans?

MANDY: Mandy herself
Andrea Riseborough carries her favorite book to work in MANDY. (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

The Idea Behind MANDY

In 1983, artist Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) and logger Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) live a quiet, vaguely reclusive life in the Shadow Mountains. Bloom spends her days working in a small convenience store that is sporadically visited by the few living nearby and the occasional tourist. Her evenings are devoted to creating elaborate fantasy art for and inspired by the kind of novels she loves. At night, Red returns and the two eat, cuddle up watching late night movies, and make love. It feels routine but the routine seems to work wonderfully for them both. They both have painful pasts of substance abuse and trauma and they help one another put those in the rearview.

This simple paradise ends up ruptured when Mandy gets noticed by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a failed folk singer-songwriter turned leader of the cult Children of a New Dawn. He immediately fixates on her and decides having her is God’s will. She must join New Dawn as his latest follower/sexual concubine; it is ordained. Despite the jealousy of some, especially Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré), no one will tell Jeremiah no. Thus, he enlists the Black Skulls — a quartet of bikers almost supernaturally twisted by a bad batch of LSD — to bring Bloom to him.

They do so, but Mandy refuses Jeremiah, despite heavy doses of hallucinogens and bee venom. Unnerved and angered by her mockery, the cult leader elects her and Red as “sacrifices.” It is a means to regain the respect of his followers and seems to work.

Red, however, survives the experience and decides to resurrect his violent past in the name of avenging her.

MANDY: Red makes an ax
Nicolas Cage gets to work on vengeance in a scene from MANDY. (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

Writing MANDY

MANDY is an incredibly visual experience. Despite that, however, the duo of Aaron Stewart-Ahn and Panos Cosmatos do put compelling words in the mouths of their characters. In particular, Jeremiah has multiple monologues that pinball from laughable to bone-chilling and back. They are obviously overblown but given the gear that MANDY runs in, they never seem to feel out of place.

Another key moment is a soliloquy/reminiscence Mandy shares with Red one night. Much of the Mandy/Red relationship unfolds in looks, touches, and sharing space. In this moment, however, she quietly recalls her father’s massacre of a nest of sparrows. The — probably purposely — underwritten Mandy comes alive. When her fates arrives, as a result, it hits all the harder. In fact, I’d argue, in that moment she becomes the most “alive” and “real” character in the entire film.

There is a third credited writer, Chris Kelly, who wrote the “copy” for the Cheddar Goblin commercial. It is suitably straight-faced bizarre and wonderfully signals just how altered reality has become in a 15-second span.

MANDY: Cheddar Goblin commercial
Isaiah C. Morgan and Zeva Duvall meet the Cheddar Goblin! (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

Casting the Male Lead of MANDY

Much of what you have likely encountered about MANDY has probably sold it to you on the basis of a good old-fashioned Nic Cage freakout. In my opinion, though, this was not even a top 10 Cage-style wilding out. If you want that in a good movie, revisit last year’s MOM AND DAD. Witness Cage take apart his midlife crisis pool table while screaming the hokey pokey. That’s some good, good scene devouring, let me tell you.

What you actually get here is, well, just straight up good acting. Save a moment of roaring, self-administered first aid, Cage is not in screaming mode. Instead, he spends the first part of the film as a kind of supportive cipher. He has this stable energy that quietly fills the space around him. There are no fireworks, just a man who is happy to be where he is in life but exhausted from the journey to get there.

In the second act, he becomes a vessel of vengeance while remaining still largely silent. Bug-eyed and lurching from a combination of injury, drug abuse, and so much emotional pain it can only be expressed physically. But, still, silent.

Using his thicker-than-typical body to give his presence on screen a gravity the enemies he faces lack, Cage comes across as a kind of living dead. Nonetheless, he feels so much more real than the monstrous biker gang or the insubstantial, almost flickering empty vessels of the cultists.

I am a long-time Cage fan so take this with a grain of salt if you’d like, but this is a reminder that he has more arrows in his talent quiver than just the emotional explosion.

MANDY- Jeremiah
Linus Roache is feeling a little burned out in a scene from MANDY. (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

Casting the Female Lead of MANDY

I mentioned above that Mandy’s monologue makes her feel more alive than anyone else who appears on-screen. The writing is good, for certain, but what really sells it is Riseborough’s hollow-eyed, resilient performance. Feeling as light and as breakable as a bird for most of the movie, Riseborough lets her eyes, almost always steadily and unblinkingly gazing, tell you where she has come from. The story of the sparrows provides a hint, but her eyes make it clear that it had been much worse than that.

Riseborough’s voice is a barely present whisper, also a hint of the life she has left behind. It never feels strained or forced, more like she never had the opportunity to learn she could speak louder. Until Red, it seems, Mandy did not know men who had any interest in hearing what she had to say about much if anything.

Finally, we have her confrontation with Jeremiah. You can feel her awareness that there is no escape, that this man, just one of a series, will be the last horrible one she shall face. She cannot stop him, cannot survive him, so she does the next best thing. She breaks him with what little she has, her laugh, her defiance, and does it in full view of his followers. Riseborough wisely does not change her voice or tone. Instead, she lets go of Mandy’s one course word — “sucks” — and laughs, her eyes dazzling for the first and last time.

MANDY: CHAINSAWS!
Stephan Fraser and Nic Cage (back to camera) engage in a good old-fashioned chainsaw duel in a scene from MANDY. (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

Casting the Rest of the MANDY Call Sheet

Playing an empty-headed cult leader like Jeremiah Sand with the proper mix of threat, silliness, and pitifulness that this story requires could not have been an easy task. That said, Roache locates the pitch and maintains it throughout the movie. He never feels too badass nor too ridiculous. His finest moment comes as he flits between confident deal-making, pathetic offers of oral sex, and, finally, unrestrained arrogance as he meets Red face to face.

If anything, Fouéré’s performance as Mother Marlene might actually be the most unnerving of all. Hers is less elaborate and overblown and therefore feels more relatable. She is motivated by jealousy and a desire for acceptance, not some massive ego wound. Fouéré gives her just the right bit of creepy neighbor to undercut the cult nonsense she is trying to wrap it up in.

MANDY: The gang
The Black Skulls stand poised for their murder party, (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

Filming

Anyone who caught Cosmatos’s previous effort BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW will see this as a smart next step in his evolution as a filmmaker. He still instills most of the images with a sort of gleeful disconnect from reality. The camera often floats rather than moving linearly. Images fade and combine rather than cut. Colors are frequently lurid and overwhelming.

On the other hand, the story is more recognizably “real.” Even as Miller’s quest begins to feel more like Orpheus attempting to pluck Eurydice from Hell than a straight-up quest for vengeance, even as a conversation unfolds as though one is speaking psychically while the other has to speak out loud, it feels like it is unfolding at least partially in our world. BLACK RAINBOW’s reality dissipates entirely by the end of the film, but MANDY’s returns in full with a thunderclap of grief.

Cosmatos reveals to us the merger of the real and the supernatural, the unreal and the earthly, throughout. However, he never stops reminding us that a woman did die and the consequences of that death are real.

It is a stylish dip into the phantasmagoric that keeps its motives and drives explicitly human.

MANDY: Bloody Red
Nicolas Cage could use a shower in a scene from MANDY. (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

Composing MANDY’S SCORE

The late Johann Johannsson’s score is awesome as a part of the film and as its own entity. Visceral and threatening, it paints a soundscape at once both in line with the action on-screen and going above and beyond it.

In a scene where Miller faces off against the chemist who made the LSD that apparently twisted the Black Skulls, only the chemist speaks. It could have been a brutally dull bit of filmmaking. Instead, Johannson’s composition tells the story that Cage’s lack of words would otherwise deny us. Droning with sharp spikes, it shoots the entire moment through with palpable dread. Cage never takes a step forward from the start of the scene, but the sense that everyone on-screen might end up dead at any moment is undeniable.

As one who normally does not notice score, this one demanded my attention for all the right reasons.

MANDY: Mandy Bloom in red
Andrea Riseborough haunts us all in MANDY. (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

That’s a Wrap!

If ever there was a movie I could declare straight-faced as not being for everyone, MANDY would be it. The movie is overheated, highly stylized, and boasts a chainsaw-on-chainsaw duel. It is populated by cultists, trailer park arms dealers with a genius for weapon making, and bikers who the movie insists are human but look and act nothing like. The animation sequences do little to progress the story. The inter-chapter “covers” are self-indulgent.

And yet… if you catch its vibe? You are just gonna love it.

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