For a film that plays in the broad narrative strokes like a much-belated sequel to the adolescent fantasia that was 1981’s Heavy Metal, Panos Cosmatos’ gleefully irresponsible Mandy sure approaches the sheer, ravished psychic impact and meditative, enraptured gloom of another film from the same year, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. Sacrilegious though the comparison may be, Cosmatos’ clearly mystical aria of sensory impulses and untamed spirits radiates with a similarly occult energy, simultaneously soul-bearing and soul-occluding, and casts a similarly esoteric, mosaical shadow on the landscape of modern cinema. Thriving on contradictory ambition, Cosmatos’ film thins the membrane between Judas Priest and Joy Division, or Andrei Rublev and Conan the Barbarian (lest we forget that Tarkovsky himself was a huge fan of The Terminator’s ice-age tenor and melancholic urban nightmare). It’s wild, woolly, and truly psychotropic – demon-fed fuel for any rager and comfortable adorning the shelf of any man-cave – but its aesthetic ambitions and vision of a restful dream forestalled also draw us right to the existential enmirement of the human soul in unsettling forces beyond our comprehension. Cutting a conjurer’s figure, more than any film of 2018, Mandy casts a truly demiurgic spell on the viewer.
And, as violently untamed and cathartic, bordering on avant-garde, as the final half may be, the early portions of Cosmatos’ ethereal vision of Manichean loneliness cast a Romantic portrait of collective solitude that could have made Emerson blush. A couple, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), live a solitudinous existence, wonderfully lonely but not emotionally stranded. As they go about their daily rhythms, the film suggests a slice of life picture lost in the void, fuzzy with intangibles, radiating the composure of a perfect relationship that is bound to collapse at a moment’s notice, a vision of perfection which seems plasticine, self-consciously affected, too crystalline to be as true as it lets on. Mandy is tinged with whiffs of sorcery throughout, but the most effective devilry Cosmatos concocts is the almost preternatural sense that happiness is a thin, chimerical fabric that only exists to be ripped to shreds.
The only depressing thing about Mandy, then, is that there’s no riddle of the sphinx beneath this chimera. For all Mandy’s altered states and Cosmatos’ Lovecraftian sensibility toward overflowing specters of doom just barely dormant beneath the placidity of everyday life, there’s no sense that he is exposing a tear in the moral fabric of existence, let alone gifting us with any Carpenter-esque second sight onto the nature of ethical reality. Mandy, for all its overgrown brambles of style, is essentially conservative, probably, or post-political if we take its aspirations at face-value (although there’s no such thing as truly post-political), and there’s frankly little sense of moral complication. When Nicolas Cage laments in his particularly idiomatic way, half-way toward concocting his own language, that he has to go kill “crazy evil,” Cosmatos is content to indulge him, not complicate him. Sometimes, as the film beckons us to believe, evil is just evil.
In one moment, Cosmatos throws caution to the wind, turning his film into a funhouse mirror refraction of Bergman’s Persona as Mandy’s face morphs into her captor Jeremiah’s (Linus Roache) and they eventually bleed together in an audio-visual coup which dismantles any semblance of stable archetypal character roles and surges with all the attendant concerns and post-modern pockmarks in the certainty of identity and individual self-hood we might imagine. Cosmatos’ film never really reaches, or aspires to, that breed of ambiguity again. But, considering the essentially proto-classical, almost primordial essentialism of the film, this almost iconographic quality, more kindred with silent than modern cinema, suits Cosmatos’ vision just fine, especially because he’s so willing to rough up and dismember our icons (Cage, specifically) in this truly wild mane of a film.
In fact, Mandy as far from the critical theory house as humanly possible, which, of course, will certainly make it an ample test-case for critical theorists in the coming years. Rather, Cosmatos’ tenor veers wildly from sidewinding bacchanalia to operatic technicolor implosions to sudden, spectral divinations of the unknown, but his vision is always purely affective and reflex-oriented, never really reflexive or even reflective. There’s no desire to encapsulate modernity here in a thesis, to cloister his sensory ambitions in an exegetical vision. He simply wants us to react, and to do so, his film dances madly around a should-be-unsupportable foundation of narrative simplicity, annexing so much ground with his frightening formalism and unleashing so much liberating filmic energy uncontained by logic that he practically brings the cinematic house down.
In the early portions of Mandy, the interstitial spaces of the film seem to glimpse the interstices of the soul. In the back-half of the film, Cage goes on the hunt, matching the demonic excess of the world around him with his own effusive spillovers of masculine id and uncontrollable energy. At that point, the film’s placid demeanor shudders into pieces, the fabric of the film ripping to shreds as what orienting narrative safety net we have unstitches into a torrent of torqued sound cues from the inimitable Johann Johannsson and lesioned cinematographic splashes, the film metastacizing into a tantrum of sheer psychosis. From here on, and for this reason, I’m not sure that the film amounts to anything beyond the sheer magisterial impact of its own sensory existence, it becomes a graveyard smash, and it seems like Cage’s extremely direct papa bear physique and trembling, truly idiomatic sense of the near-delusory, is the only conceptual vocabulary holding the film together, the only normative lexicon we have to explain what Mandy is actually doing, or not doing.
In other words, it’s a scintillating sensory experience, but to some extent, that’s all it is. Cosmatos’ savage vision of human alienation sometimes longs too easily for a pre-modern masculine virility – the uninhibited male icon whose personal loss justifies his extraordinary capacity for violence – to match the equally primordial violence it throws our protagonist’s way. But given Cosmatos’ sheer effectiveness, this wild miasma of a film is hard to argue with. Mostly, Mandy’s narrative pummels us with a kind of ur-masculinity, Cosmatos retaining his father’s essential emphasis on immediate impact over symbolically-laden art (daddy directed Rambo: Frist Blood II, after all).
But there is more if you want there to be. The younger Cosmatos, some mad diviner, channels affect into a kind of accidental art form, trading his father’s hyper-competent mediocrity for his own lingua franca which seems to aspire to surpass mere masculinity, to see beyond it, as if diagnosing its inner tensions through sheer sensory over-load. It’s a caricature of masculinity, in other words, but it takes itself so seriously and veers so widely form the sublime to the ridiculous that it’s no simple parody. If I was being generous, I’d say that the vexing, dreamlike haze of the early moments tacitly expose the essentially phantasmagorical quality of normal life for loners like Red, as though the charmed mundanity of everyday existence is entirely unfulfilling for men like Red would much rather be lobbing off demon heads than actually enjoying the company of their loved ones. I don’t know that I’m fully convinced, but it’s easy to see why people would read a film as the most self-consciously phallic chainsaw in history.
Frankly, I don’t know what to call it, and sometimes the film’s mystical evocations and demonic excesses trump morality entirely. But it is clearly up to something beyond mere Pavlovian masculine salivating. Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography is diaphanous, a gossamer fabric half-glimpsing occult sensations that are entirely visual, yet seem to subsist slightly beneath the perceptual threshold, hard-wired into our brain. Cage fights back, in other words, but there’s little sense of catharsis, or even success. Viewed through a Cage-ian lens, seen through the eyes of modernity’s inverse Keaton, a man in motion even when he’s still, the film’s initial serenity hides a dangerous, devilish sense of arbitrariness, a sense in which all the kinesis and reckless motion and movement on display amounts to little more than one cycle in some divine, endlessly-recurring narrative of centrifugal violence.
The Cage figure seems tormented not only by the death of his wife but by his own essentially iconographic nature, a figure doomed to fight against a world which is doomed to throw evil at him simply in order for him to fight it. Throughout, his truly restless demeanor, shaking and quivering with existential uncertainty, feels tapped into some current of humanity, going mad trying to fulfill the role of a vengeance-crazed hero as his T-cells seem virally trying to reach beyond the confines of archetype, to infect him with humanity. But, tragically, he remains doomed to fill-out his role in this perverted ur-narrative of American masculinity. In this droning, prowling, psychedelic freak-out of a film, everything ultimately feels essentially predestined, like icon figures playing out some tragically cyclical cosmological game rather than occupying the world as agents of their own existence.