By Preston Wilder
I don’t usually advise people where to sit in the cinema (it’s not really part of my job description), but when it comes to Mandy I can offer a hot tip that’ll make for an optimum viewing experience: sit as close to the screen as possible, maybe even in the front row. It’s that kind of movie. Unfortunately it’s not playing on any of our biggest screens, not to mention that it’s only playing once, late at night, at the various K-Cineplexes (the Rio in Limassol is a bit more generous). It’ll probably be gone by next week – then again, we’re lucky to have it at all. It’s that kind of movie.
A film like this shouldn’t really exist in today’s marketplace. In the first place, it demands to be watched on the big screen, which is not how people watch movies these days. In the second place, it demands to be watched in an atmosphere of cathedral-like silence; a neighbour rustling a packet of crisps, or chatting restlessly, could break the spell. Above all, in a market where films are designed to appeal to as many demographics as possible, this is uncompromisingly one thing: a dreamlike, bombastic, exceedingly slow-paced mood piece that’ll either mesmerise or annoy, with not much scope in between.
That said, a number of ingredients have gone into this rich, heavy stew. One is the taste for portentous fantasy that also informs (say) Lord of the Rings; this is a movie where the villains use the ‘Horn of Abraxas’ to summon spiky porcupine creatures known as the Black Skulls (a blood sacrifice is required, of course). Another is the prog-rock grandiosity you’ll find, for instance, in the cover art for King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King (not a random reference; a Crimson song, ‘Starless’, plays behind the opening credits). Yet another is the in-your-face, smoke-and-filters flash one associates with music videos, albeit taken to a higher level; there’s at least one incredibly beautiful scene, where a neon-red-filtered Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) sees – or, it seems, hallucinates – a van on a country road. And a fourth ingredient is Nicolas Cage – not just the actor but the baggage he carries nowadays, after so many memorable freak-outs in so many bad films. Cage has become a heavily-memed symbol for unhinged, intentionally-funny melodrama. If he’s in a movie, you know it’s going to be nuts.
Drugs may be another ingredient here, the drugs implicitly required to enjoy it to its fullest (it is, in a word, trippy) – but the arthouse cinema of Bergman and Tarkovsky, and Gaspar Noé, is also an ingredient. Director Panos Cosmatos, who made the equally intense and grandiloquent Beyond the Black Rainbow, films in bold strokes and treats his actors like he treats his other visuals, pushing them to their limits. Mandy tells a tale of childhood trauma, a tale of how cruel people can be – and it’s all done in one take, with the camera inching closer and the excellent score adding a final flourish by going from percussive to melodic. Later, Jeremiah Salt (Linus Roache) – a self-styled Messiah heading a murderous cult of hippy misfits – tells another long story, of how he and Mandy belong together, and their faces meld surreally in an echo of Bergman’s Persona. Later still, Cage does his patented freak-out – and it’s also in one take, the actor swigging vodka and howling at the moon in his Y-fronts in an exhibition of grief that’s both ludicrous and touching, and touching for being so ludicrous. Mandy goes out on a limb, daring you to mock it or (worse still) turn away.
The plot is simple, Red (that’s Cage) taking revenge for Mandy’s death at the hands of Jeremiah and his cohorts. The film may be seen as simplistic too, though it has its eye on higher things – Red is a kind of Jesus figure (he gets his side pierced, and a nail driven through his hand), finally defeating Jeremiah’s fake Jesus and his gospel of self-destructive love – yet it’s not so much simplistic as one-track-minded. Mandy is pitched at the same tone throughout, a polished artefact controlled to perfection. It’s like a single, spine-tingling guitar riff, magically stretched out to two hours.
The film’s second half (the revenge) initially seemed like a letdown. It’s not really cathartic, or even very exciting. Red is warned that the odds are against him – yet it all seems too easy, and the lugubrious pace of the first half doesn’t change, as expected, into something frenzied and explosive. But that’s the point. Second viewing (yeah, I’ve seen it twice) made the film seem even stronger for remaining murky throughout – as if to emphasise the smallness of human desires, and bring out the cosmic forces implied early on (“What’s your favourite planet?”) and revealed in the final shot. Mandy takes B-movie clichés and inflates them into a dazzling, bloated, self-important, always-audacious phantasmagoria. For best results, sit up close.
DIRECTED BY Panos Cosmatos
STARRING Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache
US/UK 2018 121 mins