Written by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Directed by Panos Cosmatos
In 1983, lumberjack Red Miller and his lady Nancy Bloom were living a peaceful life in the Shadow Mountains. Nancy is an artist, enamored with fantasy, heavy metal, and science fiction, all of which work their way into her paintings. Their lives are forever changed when the Children of the Dawn come into their life. This cult’s leader, Jeremiah Sand, glimpses Mandy and decides he must have her, no matter the cost. What follows is a trippy, psychedelic journey into the depths of horror and revenge. Red quickly loses his humanity to do whatever it takes to get back Mandy.
Panos Cosmatos’ debut feature Beyond the Black Rainbow will forever be one of the most powerful artistic influences I’ve found in film. In discussing that film, he describes it as an attempt to recreate the feeling of watching horror cinema as a child in the 1980s. It works, and Black Rainbow ends up being less a film whose plot you follow but a movie experience about a particular hazy, dreamlike feeling. Cosmatos has expressed no immediate interest in a follow-up and so for many fans, myself included, we assumed this might be a one-off picture from the writer-director. It took a full decade, but he has produced his second work, Mandy.
Mandy is a more accessible movie than Beyond the Black Rainbow. The earlier film was very Lynchian in the dream logic of its world, and there wasn’t much concerning plot or character arcs. Mandy has a more traditional three-act structure, while still retaining the hallucinatory imagery. There is much more dialogue in Mandy, while it’s still probably less than most audiences would be expecting. Cosmatos truly understands the idea that film is a visual storytelling genre and applies his style to cinema. The director also doesn’t shy away from explaining his influences and never tries to claim the films he’s making exist outside of nostalgia.
This is nostalgia that isn’t done in a wink and nod manner. Cosmatos profoundly understands the emotional psychology of kids when they watch movies. He’s also done a very obvious study of low budget genre pictures from the early 1980s and comprehends them more thoroughly than most of the retro-Grindhouse films coming out in the decade. So much of the new wave of Grindhouse is played for ironic humor, but Cosmatos holds a reverence for the grimy, roughshod genre that inspires these homages. This is conveyed in the film during a brief scene where Mandy and Red watch television while eating dinner. The movie on the screen is Don Dohler’s Nightbeast. Dohler was Baltimore-based movie maker that specialized in micro-budget genre horror and sci-fi. Most modern audiences would watch a film like Nightbeast in full MST3K mode, but we see Mandy wholly enraptured with what’s happening on screen. She views this low budget cheesy movie as telling us a remarkable story, which in turn informs us of Cosmatos’ personal beliefs.
The cast is stellar, playing things over the top just as we would like them. The performances are reigned in by Cosmatos’ direction so things never go more over the top than he will allow. Linus Roache plays Jeremiah Sand, the cult leader antagonist and makes sure the character walks the line of mind-being svengali and pathetic creep hanging on by a thread. His coterie of followers feel straight out of central casting in their exaggerated mannerisms and looks. We don’t get much information about them, but in a movie like this, I expect side characters to be painted in broad strokes.
I was disappointed with the lack of things for Andrea Riseborough to do as Mandy. She does a beautiful job with what she is given, and her final scene in the movie is fantastic. Mandy is a quiet, introverted woman and Riseborough captures that sense of the character becoming lost in the fantasies and fictions she creates, eager to share her passions with Red. The movie is following a stock B-movie plot, and sadly in the 1970s and 80s, so many revenge films defaulted to the female lead taking a backseat to the masculine revenge plot. Cosmatos does repurpose the plot with his flourishes, but I couldn’t help but wish Riseborough had been given a bit more.
Nicolas Cage was the wild card for me going into my viewing. Cosmatos likes to make his big flourishes in post-production and keep things muted with his actors. Cage is not a performer known for reigning it in, but the role of Red finds a way to give him those loud explosive moments in the end, but keep him simmering in the first two-thirds of the picture. Cage is also becoming more particular about the movies he does if you look at his filmography with a close eye. He is much more interested in exploring genre cinema (crime, fantasy, historical, horror) than being in a staid, character drama. While most of his film choices aren’t the types of movies, I migrate towards I do commend him for owning what he likes to do. He’s a self-confessed fan of comic books, sci-fi, and things “geeky” so it makes sense that now that’s he’s incredibly financially comfortable his film choices would be based around what he enjoys working on.
Mandy isn’t a film that will ever appeal to a wide audience and expect a broad swath of horror/Grindhouse fans will be turned off by Cosmatos’ art house touches. This is a movie that will become a treasured artifact by that niche audience that is in tune with the director’s vision of how genre movies feel when you first watch them. We want to be caught up in the beautiful, horrifying dream of Panos Cosmatos because this is a dream we remember having when life was terrifying and new.