Director Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is set somewhere in a California wilderness in 1983, though specifics of time and place don’t matter to this film, which, with its explosions of psychedelic color, appears to be set inside a giant lava lamp. Like quite a bit of contemporary films set in the ’80s, the ostentatious period signifiers are rampant in Mandy, though Cosmatos is at least partially in on the joke. After a long day of cutting down trees the size of skyscrapers, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) returns to his cozy cabin and tells his lover, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a knock-knock joke featuring Erik Estrada. Only a handful of modern actors could get away with this sort of dialogue, and Cage renders the line not only funny but revealing of the tenderness coursing through Red’s relationship with Mandy.
Red and Mandy live in a kind of dream world that’s epitomized by the outlandish cinematography, synth score, surreal dialogue, and frequent allusions to other pop-cultural artifacts. (Cosmatos goes out of his way to tell us, for instance, that Red and Mandy live near “Crystal Lake.”) There’s something recently tamed about this couple, as they suggest lone animals who’ve found an unlikely way to settle into hibernation. With a single gesture, Cage allows the audience to discern that Red is a recovering alcoholic. He’s also a primordial wild man—a big, aging guy with a shaggy beard and an unlikely streak of vulnerability. Meanwhile, Mandy brings to mind a reformed groupie who’s lost in her own head, with an off-kilter sense of speaking and a penchant for wearing vintage rock T-shirts while wandering through foreboding woods that wouldn’t be out of place in a fairy tale.
Pulp aficionados will know that Mandy isn’t long for this world, particularly given the narrative’s many blunt allusions to the quashing of beauty by death, though Cosmatos prolongs her demise, deepening the film’s sense of dread. And when a predator inevitably arises, a pronounced aura of male resentment seeps into the film. Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a cult leader who reflects the irrational preoccupation that people had in the ’80s with devil worshippers, is a con man in the game for sexually enslaving women. When Jeremiah kidnaps and drugs Mandy, Cosmatos springs an audacious scene: For several long beats, in which various images overlap one another in pink and white hues so as to communicate Mandy’s warped consciousness, Jeremiah lectures his new prisoner on the pain he’s endured, which entitles him to enjoy whatever he wants. This guy wouldn’t do well in the #MeToo era—at least not out in the open—and Roache, dressed to resemble an albino Jesus, laces Jeremiah’s noxious absurdities with a faux-sanctity that’s common of criminals in the religious racket. Jeremiah concludes his speech by proudly displaying his penis for Mandy and his cult to see, and Mandy seals her doom with laughter that cuts right through his pompous chest-puffing.
When Mandy is kidnapped and later brutally murdered, in a manner perversely echoing her recollection of watching birds killed in a sack, the film changes gears, trading purplish romanticism for ultraviolent horror and nihilistic action. Jeremiah might actually be in contact with demons, as evinced by the presence of biker cenobites, whom he pays off with a kind of hallucinatory soul petroleum. Left for dead, in a manner parodying Jesus’s crucifixion, Red escapes and springs into attack mode, battling Jeremiah’s cult with cathartic ease. Red faces a nightmare that’s symbolic of a real fear driving reformed addicts: that the life they’ve carefully pieced together is an illusion destined to succumb to the horror of their true hungers.
While Jeremiah and his cult clearly embody perverted masculinity, Mandy isn’t comfortably feminist; if it were, it would probably be a less powerful film. Jeremiah and his gang are coded as fey, as emasculated frauds who invented a cult so as to achieve the manly power that Red comes by naturally. And Red and Jeremiah’s war resembles two poles of masculine pride that are eating one another alive, with Mandy existing nearly beside the point as a forgotten inciting incident. For all of Mandy’s influences, which are too numerous to succinctly catalogue, the film is particularly driven by heavy metal, which often rhapsodizes women as an exploration of male distress. Cosmatos is aware of the irony of this self-absorption, loading the second half of Mandy with enough phallic jokes for a half dozen Brian De Palma films. Yet he also gets off on his outrageously excessive formalism, as well as on the aggression and primal weaponry, particularly an astonishing metal ax that resembles a cross between a guitar and a medieval broad sword.
This smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Happiness is dangerously foreign to people like Red, while obliteration is at least familiar. Mandy is a profoundly violent and weirdly moving poem of male alienation.