Perhaps the greatest sin a filmmaker can commit is presuming to be more they are. Director Panos Cosmatos is not vulnerable to such accusations. His freshman picture, Beyond the Black Rainbow, was compared to Kubrick. He shut the comparison down. “I’ve been deeply influenced by Kubrick,” he said, “but any similarities were unintentional.” Beyond was a popcorn film, he suggested – for folks who eat their popcorn at a glacial pace.
Flush with violent Reds and Blues, it was described as a “Reagan-era fever-dream,” which understates by an inch or two. Mandy is very much a spiritual sequel – and perhaps even an actual sequel: In one of the final shots of the movie, we see two moons hanging over a fiery horizon; our film inhabits a nightmare world, with dangers that lay elsewhere beyond our field of vision; its characters are nightmare characters, to the point that I’m almost certain that I dreamed this film – quite nearly in its entirety – circa 2015 at the height of my University-induced caffeine addiction, along with the lengthy bouts of sleep deprivation and nausea that came with it. Mandy is precisely what it is, precisely What It Says On The Tin – although the text on the aforementioned tin is scrawled in some inscrutable calligraphy, for which there is no “Rosetta Stone.”
We follow the eponymous Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), who works at convenience store and makes Lovecraftian artwork in her down time. Her partner, Red (Nicholas Cage), is a lumberjack. Whatever they are, we aren’t introduced to them; Cosmatos fixates on their drudgeries, cutting frenetically between images that tell us little about their inner lives: Mandy thumbs through a novel between ringing up customers; Red saws a tree down to the stump; they fall asleep watching Nightbeast, as you do; Mandy stumbles on a dead animal in the woods; Red watches her timidly through the dim glow of a campfire. They are disengaged, unbothered by the burn and blister of human community. This is by design.
But Mandy is a “revenge film,” as you’ve probably heard. As such, it shares an already-poisoned well with a long line of contemptible offerings, including this month’s Peppermint. Revenge cinema is so hopelessly compromised by chauvinist debauchery that it’s rare when a film can claw its way up the jagged rocks and justify its own existence. But there are such films: Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 springs to mind, and I Saw The Devil; The Virgin Spring, of course, and Neil Jordan’s Angel; most recently, Blue Ruin, and arguably Sicario. Naturally, few of these films can be plausibly accused of being “revenge porn,” and are most likely the opposite. Some, like Eli Roth’s white-bread reboot of Death Wish, try to have it both ways and manage simply to waste everyone’s time. Mandy, however, seems to recuse itself from the conversation.
The subject of the film is Mandy herself. She is wronged midway into its runtime, and Red is her vengeful ghost, so to speak. Though Nicolas Cage, and his performance herein, has been the movie’s selling-point for those who weren’t eagerly awaiting the next Panos Cosmatos joint, the titular Mandy is the main character. When the film erupts into gleeful violence in the latter half, it gives no indication as to whether we are meant to approve or disapprove of the reckoning to which we are witnesses.
In this sense, the film is already taking a position: In traditional “revenge films,” the world is a serenely ordered garden disrupted by a “foreign threat.” The Anarchists™ burn down the cabin where the Upright Citizen™ resides. The cosmic equilibrium, now unbalanced, must be mended with a blood sacrifice of sorts; justice must be restored to the universe. In such films, “revenge” becomes more than revenge – the blood-bought satisfaction of the Upright Citizen’s just rage is a clever bit of social control, often co-opted in service of your grandfather’s political agenda: Jennifer Garner avenges her Good White Family™ from those unmitigated cartels. The Chicagoan suburbs are becoming a Multi-Ethnic Hellscape™ and only Charles Bronson, instigated by the death of his wife, or his daughter, or his lifelong friend, can turn the unruly streets safe again. In Mandy, there are no hints of such strong-armed social engineering.
If Mandy and Red are Upright Citizens™, we don’t know about it, because we don’t know about them. They are Rousseau in the woods, battered into unholy communion by an unsavory commonwealth of belligerent sheeple. There is no equilibrium to restore, only revenge to exact. The films of which Mandy most reminded me, then, were not Death Wish or Hellraiser – as some early reviews, choking on the film’s baroque imagery, suggested – so much as Pasolini’s Pigsty, or Michael Mann’s The Keep, or even Messiah of Evil, to some extent. By the time the film erupts into something like Sam Peckinpah’s Jigoku, you’ll have forgotten to compare it the Bronson films whose mantel, presumably, it must now carry.