Ride the Tiger, You Can See His Stripes But You Know He’s Clean/You Can Feel His Heart But You Know He’s Mean

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There is a reticence in talking about Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’ fuck crazy 2nd feature film following the 2009 cult horror Beyond the Black Rainbow, by way of its narrative elements by both detractors and fans. The detractors simply posit that the film doesn’t have anything to say while the fans (of which I am a very devoted one) may or may not agree with that but think “who cares?”, a sentiment I would agree with 9 out of 10 times as a hardcore formalist. But when it comes to Mandy, I have to admit the emotional charge of the movie is so irreversibly tied to all of its aesthetical pleasures that it feels like claiming Blade Runner or Mad Max: Fury Road are shallow just because they happen to be simple screenplays with filmmakers who decide to expand their themes within their designs. Every visual and audial decision within those two films does more to inform how you feel, bring up concepts and themes for you to ponder about, and guide you into some semblance of an emotional beginning, middle, and end than their skeletal screenplay.

Mandy’s, written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is one that begins by taking the good part of an hour establishing the serenity of 1983 California’s Shadow Mountains where grizzled lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) and his spacey titular artist/convenience store clerk girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in calming isolation within the wooden terrain, apparently serving as each other’s comforts from some upsetting past (an unacknowledged scar runs down the left of Mandy’s huge pool-like eyes and there’s the slightest hint from Red’s refusal of a beer that he has survived alcoholism). It’s working as Red quietly lounges in their transparent glass house (with a bedroom that’s all windows seeing the trees before them and the stars above) and Mandy indulges in reading dark fantasy novels that inspire her artwork and discussing astronomy with Red. But this does not last as Mandy crosses paths with the sinister Children of the New Dawn cult based in some curdled spawn of hippie philosophy and Christian fanaticism. She particularly catches the lustful eye of their deranged leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and he uses his power to invade Red and Mandy’s home.

The subsequent violence that occurs invokes a rage that brings about the forging of a battle axe that resembles Celtic Frost’s logo, the hunting down of their Black Skulls bikers (who look like grisly Clive Barker-imagined Judas Priest fans, in inky black leather speaking in gargled guttural sounds resembling blood stuck in their throat and surrounded by a doomy fog), an inadvertent trip through cocaine and blood-mixed LSD, and the hunting down of the Children themselves including an eventual chainsaw battle that leaves Motel Hell’s brilliant fight in the dust*. It’s a film that feels like a music video despite the only needle drop being the very calm and lulling King Crimson track “Starless”. But it opens with a quote about being buried listening to music and Mandy’s whole wardrobe is band shirts and we are shown late in the film that they met at a local metal concert, so there’s no escaping the musical nature of the film.

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Overall, Mandy is a film that feels of the same spirit of Beyond the Black Rainbow: Panos Cosmatos knows the kind of movies he loves watching and he wants to make more of them (that his tastes align with mine make me all the more eager that he make more of them while being horrified at the 9-year gap between his first and second movie). He knows what he loves to look at: big swatches of primary colors from cinematographer Benjamin Loeb bathing the images, heavy metal inspired designs with prog rock pacing, unhinged and practically comical bloodletting in large form, and apparently he’s a huge fan of Too Many Cooks (Casper Kelly guest directs a fake commercial that serves as sudden comic relief to the most emotionally devastating moment AND – on second watch I realized this – begins a series of visual breadcrumbs to our protagonist’s crazed journey). More importantly, he knows the sort of music he loves to hear: hellish, droning, sludgy black metal that uses shuddering impact for rhythm and wants to go as deep as it possibly can so as to make your bones vibrate for when the violence and echoing simple guitar tones for the early moments of domestic bliss, supplied impeccably by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson as the last of his career-long trials to transform music into mood-informing sound design**. If I have to tell you that’s my musical jam, you don’t know me and I must admit Jóhannsson’s range here between sedate relaxation and harsh tonal noise focused on guitar and synthesizers feels the closest we will come to a Buckethead score which is something I’ve always wanted.

Anyway, Mandy does indeed share the spirit of Beyond the Black Rainbow and practically nothing else. For one thing, as opposed to Black Rainbow’s interiors***, Mandy is so very much in love with the texture of the outdoor Shadow Mountains and just as the first hour serves to ingrain the sincerity of Red and Mandy’s relationship, it also serves to make us very intimately familiar with the lush terrain in which they found their peace. The first scene of Red finishing his work day has a dusky shadowy blue to it that softens the image while distinguishing the dark brown from the leafy green (the whole movie seems to go for a fuzzy grained filmic look but the sharpness of the image tells us this is digital). A shot of Mandy reading her favorite book on her bed halos her in a glow radiating from the window of trees behind her. It is the sort of movie that makes me wish to live in its environment, if not for the fact that we’re also witnessing this beautiful paradise transform into something more demonic starting with the devil reds that make up the entirety of the Children’s introductory scene driving in. As the film progresses, it slowly dries out into caverns and hills and we have man-made objects impose themselves into this place, like churches and hangars that imprison tigers in them, until it’s a yellow-crimson and alien and unrecognizable. Mandy‘s final shot only confirms a space that seems to mirror the character’s final states of mind.

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For another thing, Mandy is as aware of the presence of cosmic influences as its predecessor but humorously unconcerned with it. Bill Duke’s understated cameo that functions to demystify the dragons Nicolas Cage intends to slay. If it weren’t for the beautiful final shot, a repeating dream format, and a jarring drug trip montage 2/3 of the way in, its dry humor might be seen as dismissive towards its inspired ideas. MIGHT. Instead, all it means is that Cosmatos and his cast and crew – I never even had time to acknowledge the brilliant duality in Brett W. Bachman’s editing because for all the first is patient and in no hurry for us to soak in the place-setting, the second half ratchets and escalates to a roaring final third cutting and that’s while still indulging flourishes like a dissolving superimposed close-up between Jeremiah and Mandy or a ghostly slowing-down of movements. And I don’t know who’s responsible for the three major title cards but I want them all in my bedroom wall – they’re all going to have fun with the movie. Having a sense of humor does water down how exhilarated it feels about itself, in some ways, it makes Red’s statements more badass in a casual way (“Don’t be negative” is my favorite line in the movie).

Anyway, if I’ve sold anybody on rushing to see this movie, I’m going to insist you stop reading right here because it’s gonna be a good ol’ spoiler alert while I go into what I think the movie wants to say. I sure hope the promise of Mandy‘s rock and roll sensory overload is enough to imply your satisfaction (though there is clearly going to be some people that know this isn’t for them). Indeed, there are some who would argue understandably that Mandy is much more rewarding without reading much into it and it’s certainly rewarding enough as manic carnage with a metal soul.

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I am not one of those people.

That sensory overload is not just sound and fury. It’s a story about loss and the sort of devastation it brings to a personality and to a home. Nicolas Cage is an actor we are familiar with as acting unchained and unhinged, grinning maniacally and screeching and yelling frequently. It’s amusingly extreme, but extreme nonetheless and primal. And in Mandy, there’s a context to that… Red has just had everything that made his home a home destroyed. Everything that domesticated him. He’s now a wild animal, caked in blood by the time he finishes off the Black Skulls and now only speaking in order to discuss the violence he is about to return to the people who killed Mandy. It’s extremely self-indulgent and unhealthy in its portrayal of him drinking and snorting and slashing and decapitating (and if Loeb’s camera movements during the centerpiece bathroom breakdown imply anything, the film is aware of this and afraid to approach him, instead just hovering around) but it’s Red letting his masculine rage out against the Children nevertheless. And by the end of it, he has a John Wick-like emptiness and roams aimlessly down this landscape too close to comfort to Jupiter.

And yet there’s a layer of the film that implies that it’s not Red’s grieving that’s occurring: it’s Mandy’s. The constant dreams where she is present in gorgeous animated form guiding him, the juxtaposition between him and a tiger, the mythological items that appear (with the villains’ tools always being granted a sudden flashing green) similar to the books Mandy reads, and the final shot of starlings (a bird Mandy has much grief for) giving a soundscape to illustrations of Red in heroic form share a back and forth between how one person might shed any humanity in dealing with losing someone and another might use storytelling and comforting associations to mourn softly. As Mandy’s shirts imply, she is also the metalhead between the two of them so it’s safe to assume Cosmatos gave Mandy the same tastes as himself.

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It’s an authorial cycle that doesn’t lean towards a complete answer but the ambiguous way in which Mandy maintains that its eponymous character remains involved and arguably a prime mover of the story allows leans on every aesthetical device being something that informs Mandy’s personalities and likes (despite Riseborough giving a significantly more interiorized performance than anyone save for Duke), probably the most defined character in a movie that’s mostly archetypes.

That’s just me, though. Any positive reading of Mandy seems like one I can dig and overall, it’s a film that refuses to bore me and just wants to be the biggest and most ambitious version of a violent revenge story that it can be. There’s no denying Cosmatos has plenty he wants to say within it – the fragility of male ego (though the fridging of Mandy makes it hard for me to call it a feminist movie), the delusional nature of personality cults if not religions generally, and the true purity of metalheads vs. hippies – but he doesn’t really need you to take those things out of the movie with you. All he wants you to do is take these words to heart:

“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock ‘n’ roll me when I’m dead.”

(wisely refraining from crediting the verse to convicted murderer Douglas Roberts)

*I am willing to shoot to death anyone who tries to claim Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 comes even close.
**I am for the record still very very angry we will never hear his scrapped Blade Runner 2049 score.

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