There’s a scene in Panos Cosmatos’ new mind-fuck revenge horror film, Mandy, where a character dips his gloveless hands into a cistern of pure liquid LSD in the most casual manner imaginable. The more I think about it, the more that single moment perfectly represents this bug-nuts crazy, drug-addled, apocalyptic-doomsday-cult-fueled, chainsaw-fighting, demon-biker-having madness and mania. Sure, dip your bare hands into this powerful hallucinogen and see what the hell happens. And it’s glorious.
Set in 1983, deep in the California wilderness, the plot revolves around Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), two loner outsiders who are madly in love and perfectly content with their intentionally isolated existence. When a Manson-esque death cult led by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) comes to town and tears Red’s life apart, he embarks on a vicious mission of retribution.
That alone sounds like a solid basis for a movie. Nic Cage on a vengeful rampage against an evil religious sect? Sign me up; I don’t need much more. But Mandy offers so, so much more. Soaked in a miasma of stark blues and reds that would make Argento proud, bathed in flickering lights and psychedelic flourishes, peppered with Hellraiser-inspired demon-bikers, and layered with a droning, phantasmagoric score from the late Johann Johannsson that vibrates its way into the core of your bones, Cosmatos creates an immersive nightmare-scape that begins as a slow-burn and ratchets up the madness and pressure until Mandy becomes a screaming manic-episode of a film.
This is peak Nic Cage; this is Cage mainlining PCP and cranking the dial until it snaps off in his quivering fingers—think screaming and pounding a bottle of vodka on a toilet, snorting a pile of cocaine off a shard of glass, bound and gagged in barbed wire and still screaming. But as jacked up as he gets, he intersperses moments where we remember, oh yeah, this dude has an Oscar, and for good reason. It’s a psychotic break of a performance that spans the whole spectrum, from deft and delicate to shrieking and tooth-gnashing. It’s a wild spectacle.
Why Andrea Riseborough isn’t a huge star is beyond me. While Cage is a peaking crescendo of broken insanity, she’s quiet and reserved, but no less unsettling. Reined-in and controlled, she does as much, if not more, to set the mood and tone as her co-star, adding an off-kilter chill to the proceedings—Cage is the fire, she’s the ice. She’s such a chameleon, she’s near unrecognizable from role to role, and though Cage grabs more attention, Riseborough does the most heavy lifting.
Obviously a riff on Charles Manson, Linus Roache makes Jeremiah Sand his own skin-crawling, charismatic cleric of doom. Aided by the likes of the soulless, black-pupiled Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy); the jealous, vindictive Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouere); Richard Brake’s wild-eyed Chemist; and a similarly devoted flock of brain-washed lunatics, he unleashes exploitation-style havoc on Red and Mandy’s idyllic existence.
Some people will find Mandy a bit long and oblique—Cosmatos begins deliberate and methodical, drowning us in his hyper-stylized aesthetic and soul-rattling score. But it never drags or dawdles. Even before it goes crazy, it’s all surreal atmosphere and the whole package paints an unnerving, sinister portrait—it’s a dark, unhinged dream even before it descends into full-fledged hellish nightmare. Esoteric and psychedelic, ferocious and gore-soaked, see Mandy in a theater if you can, loud and bold, confrontational and inescapable. [Grade: A]