From the trailer, Mandy has all the shiny elements that one could reasonably hope to see assembled in a modern film. There’s Nicolas Cage in a role that looks tailor-made for the type of freak-out for which he has become famous, there’s satanic imagery, occult undertones, distorted sound, dark lighting, blood, guts and grime. It’s not the kind of film that draws in your attention for the possibility that it might clarify a universal truth. It is the kind of film you watch when you want to scratch a very particular and well-known itch.
The film begins not by scratching that itch, but by intensifying it. It’s slow and methodical, clearly building towards some great pay off. The information and scenes are sparse. We meet Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and Red (Cage). They’re youngish, happy together, and vaguely unsettled with where they are in life. At some point Red suggests leaving their rural surroundings but Mandy says she loves it. Another time Cage wakes up from a nightmare while Mandy sits and stares at static on the TV screen. It’s weird, but that’s all. There’s nothing else to glean from these interactions. They create a sense of foreboding, but that is owed as much to the style as it is to any of the substance of expository scenes.
Eventually Mandy and Red’s humdrum existence is invaded by a pack of hippies who are members of a cult ran by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). The film gets even more psychedelic when their paths cross. Mandy is drugged and the edges of the film become soft and fuzzy. We look at Jeremiah and see Mandy and look at Mandy and see Jeremiah. It’s all very cool and stylized but it doesn’t say much. And so, the viewer is left to hold out hope that the payoff will really be as good as the first half of the film is inadvertently advertising, because if it isn’t, what is the point of this film?
After his wife is brutally murdered, the stage is set for Red to hunt down his wife’s killers, to have his vengeance and to justify the film’s buildup. Unfortunately, Mandy doesn’t deliver. Cage is solid as he descends the psychotropic ladder into a literal and figurative hell, but somehow the film falls short. Red chops off the head of one of the perpetrators with a battle-ax he fashioned himself. He has a chainsaw duel with one of Sand’s henchmen. He frees a tiger by having a one-way conversation with a drug dealer who mixed a super potent batch of tainted LSD that created the monsters he is now slaying. On paper it sounds awesome.
At times it was awesome. The scene in which Red kills Fuck Pig and doses himself with the tainted acid is good. The scene in Caruthers’ (Bill Duke) trailer is good. The film has great atmosphere and a haunting aura. It has everything to make it a cult classic which is almost certainly the reason that it’s not one. It violates the first and oldest rule of cool: don’t try. It is unrealistic and contradictory to say, but perhaps if the film hadn’t tried so hard to be what it wanted it to be it may have succeeded. The filmmaker, Panos Cosmatos, couldn’t set out to make a film thinking that way. That would have been a losing proposition.
Despite its lack of a completely satisfying payoff Mandy still somewhat delivers on its promise of being a death metal fever dream. All of the elements are there for a great, bizarro film and occasionally it works. Mandy will somewhat satiate your desires but it doesn’t completely scratch the itch.