LFF 2018: Mandy Review
Like almost every single reviewer before me, I’m going to start with the disclaimer that written words simply cannot capture the experience of watching Panos Cosmatos’ latest feature film Mandy. That’s not a get-out clause, this is still a review after all, but just know that first and foremost you should watch this film before reading any more about it.
The film focusses on Red Miller (Nicolas Cage), a tree logger who lives in the Shadow Mountains with his partner Mandy. Their life seems idyllic – they sleep under the stars and Mandy is a keen fantasy artist – until they are rudely interrupted by the arrival of a cult, Children of the New Dawn. The first half of the film details the horror which the Children of the New Dawn and their summoned Biker Gang, the Black Skulls, inflict on both Mandy and Red. The second half of the film is a response to these events, a straightforward revenge-based plot acted out by a man grieving for his lost love.
Titular Mandy is played by the chameleon-esque Andrea Riseborough, an actor who is almost completely unrecognisable in this role. This is in part due to the facial scarring and very long dark hair, but also the way in which Riseborough completely asserts her character's behaviours, down to the minutiae. Nicolas Cage is equally fascinating as Red, at first playing the part of a seemingly subdued and tender partner, later a deranged man who will stop at nothing to enact his revenge. Cage and Riseborough - despite having only a smattering of dialogue together - have a truly believable onscreen relationship which is absolutely crucial to the narrative of the film.
Mandy is absolutely a film of two halves. The first of which is almost excruciatingly slow-paced, it feels like every other shot is in slow motion. There are moments where this works - the vista of Red and Mandy on the lake, the moment where Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache) sees Mandy for the first time are both occasions where these elongated takes are wonderful to be immersed in. The second half is packed with many active sequences as Red pursues his victims, punctuated by lengthy dialogue between him and various cohorts that he seeks out on the way. The first half feels slightly too long and begins to drag somewhat just before the halfway point - Mandy wouldn't suffer for being slightly snappier in getting to Red's journey of revenge.
Director of photography Benjamin Leob pulls off some of the most visually striking shots - akin to the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road or the films of Nicolas Winding Refn. Careful attention and detail is given to the composition and lighting - the colours used are extraordinary and a reminder of just how far the aesthetics of cinema can be pushed. Mandy is beautifully composed in its colour palettes and framing too - so much so that one can't help but gape in awe at the screen. Equally, the soundtrack by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (who the film is dedicated to) packs a punch, complimenting the fantastical elements of the visual style.
It is a striking film, but unfortunately the detail is only skin deep. There is no real narrative (it's a simple revenge plot that's been done before) and the film raises so many more questions than it ever even tries to answer. With its fantasy elements and hyper-surreal style, mystery is part of why the film works but at the same time there does need to be some exposition in order for it to be believable - even in a film like Mandy. The style may be awesome, but that's not a replacement for a even just a hint of substance.
Cosmatos has a confident handle on all of the individual elements, but the film ultimately suffers from hitting the same note over and over again. There isn't much in the way of tension or climax. Many of the key moments, though enjoyable at the time, feel very underwhelming as there is little in the way of build up. Still, it's a film which has already gained a cult-like following, which seems appropriate for its subject matter.
Go into Mandy without any expectations. It’s been touted as something beyond the usual body horror/slasher flick, but if you’ve ever watched a Cronenberg film, you’ll already know that this type of film already exists. It isn’t really pushing the boundaries of ultra-violence or horror – but it is doing something very different in its own way.
At the very least, it’s given the world a whole host of new meme-able Nicolas Cage images, and isn’t that exactly what we need right now?