To call MANDY strange is obviously understatement - it's been a major selling point since its rather magnificently oblique trailer was released. And true, it is one of those cinematic mood pieces
that is difficult to describe without spoiling – but you should know that despite the giddy fan reaction, at its heart Panos Cosmatos' heart of darkness exploitationer is really rather reactionary. It's very much a film of two halves, the first of which is masterful. But while Cosmatos may yet end up with a place among the greats of sensory
strangeness - Lynch, Jodorowsky, Argento - MANDY doesn't really deserve to be the film that puts him there.
That first half is careful in its construction, spectacular in its imagination and so confident in its execution that you feel in very safe hands. It’s 1983, and in the Pacific Northwest United States, lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) and his artist girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are living a quiet, simple life in the woods. Beautiful, slow burning scenes establish some pain below the surface of each character, until a sinister hippie cult arrives, led by Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who from the moment he sees Mandy immediately wants to own her. Items with names like “The Horn of Abraxos” are sounded. HELLRAISER Cenobite-like bikers are summoned. Bad folk rock albums are played, all of which ends in tragedy and harrowing trauma for the hero couple.
Cosmatos' weird symphony begins like an exciting night-time drive down an unlit forest back road, with only a spotlight to see both what’s ahead and what’s whizzing past, but the man at the wheel earns your trust. His brave stylistic choices – moody animated chapter headings; careful, highly saturated colour filters over dramatic, stadium concert-esque lighting; excellent, trippy performances; some wonderful set design, and most of all Jóhann Jóhannsson’s prog-epic score (sadly, his last) - mix perfectly with his set-up: Reagan’s conservative black & white morality soundbites, a world in which the good guys wear pentagram t-shirts and dwell on the fringes of society while the baddies are evangelist nutters, a deranged and byproduct/extension of that same corrupted Christian Right.
And then…? And then…
That back road suddenly intersects with a well-lit, well-worn highway back to Tropesville. Cosmatos turns onto it, riding at full speed where so many of his retro genre influences have ridden before him, and he never looks back.
The production values remain high, but the story's potential corrodes from beneath the gloss. That period setting loses all meaning and value, exposing it as just a crutch of cosmetic nostalgia.
The slow realisation that MANDY isn’t in fact going anywhere new, that what could have been an amazing update of the old male revenge fantasy is merely reverting and regressing back into one, is crushing. All that sending the Cageometer up to eleven and its accompanying mayhem – Ooh, they’re having a chainsaw fight! How batshit ker-azy is this?! – is just dressing which can’t distract from the squandered opportunity Cosmatos was so close to seizing.
There are too many fine small achievements for it to be considered bad per sae, and despite its writing flaws it is an experience deserving of the big screen (and a bigger sound system), but be ready for MANDY to end up as what it is: yet another hollow '80s nostalgia wank.
MANDY is released September 14 in the US and October 12 in the UK. It screens in Australia for one night only (September 21).