Containing a truly explosive Nicolas Cage performance is a task that even the most experienced of directors can balk at, so it’s an enormous testament to the magnificently bonkers skill of Panos Cosmatos that he does so in only his second film. Like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in 2010, Cosmatos’ Mandy achieves this trick by surrounding the mania of its leading man with an even deeper, more fundamentally unsettling insanity. At points you won’t quite be sure what exactly you’re watching, but you’ll be absolutely certain that you’ve never seen anything like it before.
Ostensibly set in the Pacific Northwest in the ‘80s, Mandy takes place in a world that only subtly resembles our own. Sure, there are recognisable forests and landmarks, but this is a savage, depopulated version of earth, one in which demons thrive and the sky can change colour on a whim. In this strange purgatory we find lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) and artist Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a happily married couple living in an isolated cabin. Their idyll is brutally shattered by a cult, made up of both humans and BDSM demons, who kidnap Mandy and, when they find her to not be as compliant as they’d like, burn her alive in front of Red.
This murder fires Red up to go on a wild killing spree, but those expecting nothing but Peak Cage Madness and violence will be surprised by the first hour. Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn spend plenty of time laying the groundwork of setting up this world and its characters, and Cage is left on the sidelines for much of this introduction. Instead, Mandy guides us through; wide-eyed but attuned and wise. A scene in which Riseborough recounts a horrible lesson in discipline given by Mandy’s father is almost as gripping as the later bloodshed, a stunning piece of performance that confirms her as one of the best three or four British actors working today.
As brilliant as she is though, Mandy will inevitably be best remembered for an all-time great Cage freak-out. Positively restrained in the first half, the turning point is an already legendary long take of Red, immediately after Mandy’s ritual sacrifice, downing an entire bottle of vodka in his bathroom, alternating between screams and sobs. It moves from shocking to uncomfortably funny to genuinely sad, and once that box is opened, Red is cut absolutely loose.
Cage relishes the material, Red’s righteous rage turning him into God’s own killing machine. He’s terrifying and hilarious, a mix most perfectly embodied when Red, deranged grin on full display, snaps a demon’s neck with his bare hands before proceeding to snort a fist-sized pile of cocaine all in the same combo move. It’s a wildly entertaining moment that earned cheers and applause from the London Film Festival audience, and the rest of the action has a similarly gonzo appeal. Whether he’s using a crossbow, a chainsaw, or a custom-made axe that would have Thor envious, Red is a brutal force of nature.
Gore flies everywhere, so it’s only fitting that Cosmatos has set his film in a hellish alternate dimension that looks like nothing you’ve seen on screen before. He and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb appear to have invented a new way to see colour and want to show off their achievement in every way possible. The result is a deep, rich atmosphere, thick with unease and bizarre, prog-rock album cover beauty. Such is the immersive power of these satanic reds and sickly greens that any return to unfiltered, ‘natural’ light comes as a shock after your brain has remoulded itself to fit Cosmatos’s trippy reality.
In slower scenes your eyes appear to be laying tricks on you. After her initial kidnapping, Mandy is held in the cabin of cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache) and, as he interrogates her, their faces meld and switch, a perfectly executed trick that feels like you’ve been spiked with LSD. Voices crack and distort, devilish rumbles becoming more prominent as Red marches ever closer to their labyrinthine hideout, and I think I heard Cage’s voice cut in during some of the cult’s speeches, though after an hour or so in the world of Mandy, it can be hard to trust your senses.
Completing this technical triumph is the late Johann Johannsson’s magisterial score – his last completed work and up there with his very best. It’s part industrial club beats and part more traditional horror stylings, adding to the menace and thrill of the film in context and yet also a surprisingly soothing ambient listen on its own terms. It’s phenomenally good, a wonderful parting gift from Johannsson that doubles as a tragic reminder of just how much the cinematic world has lost without him.
Veering between unbearably tense and giddily exciting, supported by a streak of wicked humour, it’s impossible to tell if Mandy maintains its tonal control at all times, given that what you’re seeing at any given time is just so weird (beware the Cheddar Goblin, which will make you laugh and haunt your nightmares). ‘Visionary’ is a word that gets thrown around far too often to describe very accomplished but still essentially conventional directors, but it’s a superlative that more than belongs to Cosmatos. Mandy is truly a unique vision, absolutely not for everyone, and as far as cinema as experience goes, this is about as involving and memorable as it gets.