There will be those wanting you to believe that this sophomore feature from Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) is a profound examination of everything from religion to masculinity to grief and loss, but don’t be fooled by proclamations that Mandy is anything more than a messy, ill-disciplined effort that cleverly combines the pop culture credentials of Nicolas Cage and a savvy marketing strategy to secure an audience. This is a pretentious film in which every narrative and aesthetic decision – from costume and production design to editing – is a deliberate attempt by Cosmatos to convince viewers that he possesses a creative vision that is incompatible with the demands and expectations of mainstream cinematic storytelling. There is certainly nothing wrong with developing and creating characters and story ideas that challenge narrative norms and genre tropes – in fact, we need to see much more of that – but simply stitching a few wild visuals and a collection of ill-defined characters into a celluloid patchwork is neither interesting nor evidence of artistic vision.
Set in 1983 and featuring Cage as Red Miller, the partner of Andrea Riseborough’s titular character, Mandy is bold, bizarre and, unfortunately quite boring for much of its running time. Red and Mandy live a secluded life in a remote forest that, of course, makes them sitting ducks should any nut bags come a-knockin’. The first half of the film moves at a snail’s pace, a foreboding sense of the inevitable permeates every scene as we spend time with Red and Mandy in their ramshackle house, yet find out very little about them. Mandy is a very strange woman, which is fine, except Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn, never provide any insight that enables the audience to connect with her in anyway. In fact, it isn’t long before you are wishing the badness would begin already to make her (and the movie) more interesting and trigger the revenge rampage you know is coming. When the leader of a religious sect – whose name is Jeremiah, of course – takes a liking to Mandy, her fate is sealed and when a group of motorcycle-riding demons (who look like they have come straight from the set of Mad Max) snatch her up, a blood-soaked second hour ensues.
Having been spared by the invaders despite bearing witness to their depravities, a bloodied, traumatised Red emerges hell bent on avenging his beloved Mandy, but not before he consumes a whole bottle of vodka in the bathroom whilst howling with grief, a scene that will divide audiences depending on where they sit on the spectrum of Cage appreciation. It is from this point that the film becomes altogether more tolerable and, interestingly, it is the funniest bits that are the best, such as a scene featuring Bill Duke as Caruthers, from whom Red is collecting weapons to go hunt ‘Jesus freaks’, and a riff on Crocodile Dundee’s ‘that’s-not-a-knife’ moment, except this time with chainsaws. Whilst it is Cage’s presence that has helped raise the profile of the film, it is Linus Roache’s performance as Jeremiah that is the standout. Like the best cult leaders, Jeremiah is unhinged, egomaniacal, narcissistic, emotionally manipulative and reprehensible to the core. He is equal parts charming and sadistic, treating his disciples like shit and receiving their unwavering adulation in return. As good as Roache is, we only get a one-dimensional look at the character as there is no insight offered with regard to how he came to be this way or what he really believes beneath the rhetoric. Similarly, Sister Lucy (Line Pillett) is a character who seems ripe for greater exposition, but is ultimately confined to nothing more than a silent, passive participant in Jeremiah’s depravity.
No film should be any longer than is necessary and that rule certainly has not been applied here. At just over two hours, Mandy is way longer than it needs to be. A more efficient edit could have told the same story much more succinctly without losing any of the best bits, all of which come in the second half. So much of the screen time is wasted on visual flourishes, extreme colour palettes and simplistic editing techniques dressed up as something much more profound, rather than character development or advancing the narrative. There are moments to be enjoyed here, such as the score from the late Johann Johannsson that proves particularly effective, however Mandy suffers not from a lack of ideas, but from a lack of discipline.