Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic Nicolas Cage-starring heavy metal revenge pic Mandy was one of our most-anticipated entries in this year’s NZ International Film Festival. And it bloody delivered. Upon leaving the venue—the awesome Civic theatre, where Mandy looked incredible on the giant screen and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score boomed from the PA, bolstered by balustrade-rattling doom riffs by Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley—I started checking out reactions on Twitter, and came across a series of tweets by Auckland-based comedian Rhys Mathewson. I’d been moved and shaken, and so had he—but in much less enjoyable fashion.
Some months later, Mandy returns for a limited run in cinemas, and I remain fascinated about how this film—any film—has the power to leave someone so distraught. I caught up with Rhys, hoping that revisiting the experience wouldn’t be too painful.
Be warned—spoilers big and small follow, as well as the immense pain of a man devastated by the film (and not in a good way).
FLICKS: What did you have in mind going into the film that night? What was your buzz heading in?
RHYS MATHEWSON: Blind excitement. I knew nothing about the film going in, which I’m trying to do more and more these days—not learn about things because, generally, the trailers spoil the entire movie. And so my friend had said, “Hey, I’ve got a ticket to see it.” And I was like, “Great. Sure. I’ll go and see something in the film festival.” Always a good time. Yeah. That’s where I was at.
There was quite a hum in the theatre that night. People were quite excited. I mean, to give context, it was at the Civic. So what was your finding a seat and settling in part of the process like?
So fine, because the Civic is such a lovely venue to watch a movie in. But yeah, there was definitely that thrum in the audience of buildup, which was infectious. It geared me up more, as well, being like, “Cool. All right. There’s a very wide range of people here and they’re all very excited. I’m sure this will be great.” And then your lovely introduction to the film.
I just saw Mandy at #NZIFF and it is far and away the worst film I have ever seen. I have never exited a film feeling so awful, like spiritually wounded. I feel like a block of stone has been placed on my heart and it isn’t budging. Had to stop myself from crying on the way home
— Rhys Mathewson (@Rhyspect) July 31, 2018
Later that night, I saw this thread. When you’re re-reading that tweet, does that take you back to the place you wrote it from?
Yeah. Very much so. It was just after I’d gotten home. But I talked about it with my friend who got me the ticket, in the car park behind Q Theatre, and was just gutted. And the whole way home was just gutted. And then it was like, “I will chuck that out into the world.”
It fascinates me. You’ve never exited a film feeling so awful. And you say, “Like spiritually wounded”?
Yeah. My favorite movies are, in general, the ones that kind of fill you up with joy and hope and all that jazz. And this was the opposite of that. And it was not just the movie but the crowd’s reaction to it that really upset me. Watching people laugh and… there was a really brutal murder. I think it was a thrown sword or axe to the head. And when it landed, everyone went, “Waaaa!” but it wasn’t a cheer as in, “He’s got the bad guy,” it was a laugh. And the laugh, I found really upsetting in what the movie reveled in, I guess. And I want to say I don’t think they’re wrong for laughing. However they enjoy their unit of entertainment, if that’s the culture of it, great.
It sounds like it just reinforced that you and the rest of the audience were on two very different planes watching this film, right?
Yeah. Very much so. It started kind of about, I want to say, like 30 minutes in, just as there’s the scene at the dinner table with the really stunning visual effects. And, visually, it’s a great film. But around there is when I started to… how spoiler-heavy can we be?
Well, let’s go light on that for the minute. But I think we can kind of say that it’s a film sort of bifurcated between trauma and revenge. And I think that most people reading this will probably have some familiarity with some of the stuff that’s involved. But yeah, it’s sort of in those two halves.
Yeah. So that climax of trauma and the lead up to that is where I noticed I started to kind of get out of sync with the rest of the audience, and that just kind of elevated throughout the film. And as a comedian, I have spent many years chasing laughs and dissecting laughs, and hearing that laugh of pleasure at violence in that way—and I love an action movie, I love John Rambo goes on a justified killing spree—but this, just the way it happened just really knocked me for six.
One of the things that interested me about this initial tweet was I had some of those same emotions when I left the cinema. But I felt like they’d been constructed in me by the film that I had enjoyed, because it was a profoundly sad film. My feeling is that one thing that happens is that people went in to see the crazy Nicolas Cage film, and they were waiting for any sign of that.
Yeah. But then when it happens, it’s peak crazy Cage.
I was really moved by this film. And I went back and saw it again and the same thing happened, and it’s really sad. It’s a really, really sad film.
Tell me what the film is about for you?
To me, it’s loss. It’s going through the most unimaginable trauma possible after seeing that two people have rebuilt their lives from something. They’ve managed to make things work in some way from something that’s unspoken. And then the worst possible thing happens, and a guy might completely lose his mind in the process, or… I don’t know. I don’t know if I have an answer, a complete reading.
I left the cinema having less faith in people, both in what was made and how it was enjoyed. And I guess the film did construct that within me—but so do bullies.
My least favorite horror genre is the torture-porn genre, right? So are we sort of honing into similar territory for you with some of the stuff in this?
Yeah, I think so. That moment of trauma is very torture-y. And maybe it’s my lack of seeing films, but that’s pretty hard for what I’ve seen in film. And also, the first half of it is so small. It’s so quiet and slow. To then to go that big with it in the second half felt like a real disconnect in a way that, yeah, I had no emotional connection to it.
My own fault for knowing nothing about the film I was walking into and being incapable of walking out.
— Rhys Mathewson (@Rhyspect) July 31, 2018
I find this next one really self-deprecating, and this is also the sound of a man who’s really not happy.
Well, I don’t like people who generally complain about things they’ve seen or watched. That doesn’t generally help anything. So I wanted to capture it in being like, “I know that I should do my research,” and, “Oh, I was so upset with a thing I had no expectations from.” Well, get some expectations for what you’re about to see. If you’re going to leave yourself that open to be wounded, maybe don’t leave yourself that open. So I wanted to clarify that. And capable of walking out, yeah. I suck at that. I can’t. If I’m on a plane and I need to wee, and I’m on the non-aisle seat and the person is asleep, I’m holding it. I’m holding that until they wake up.
And in the context of this, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Civic balcony.
The perfect seats.
Yeah. Best seats in the house. Glad you enjoyed it [laughs]. You also mentioned that it’s your first experience of the kind of sub-genre of that film. So I can’t think of a worse way to be introduced to that type of film than being stuck in a Civic full of enthusiastic people and just realizing you’re on a completely different plane to the rest of humanity for those few hours.
I was not expecting a film that goes from boring to upsetting to boring and upsetting.
— Rhys Mathewson (@Rhyspect) August 1, 2018
I stand by that. I stand by that. The first part is so slow and nothing is happening. And then you’ve got this point of trauma that eliminates the one character I like, because Nicolas Cage is playing it so small that you’ve got very little to hold onto, and in such a traumatic way. And then I feel the revenge, it’s still quite ploddy. It’s just a guy shows up, he kills the guy. A guy shows up, he kills the guy. So it wasn’t interesting. No, okay, that’s not fair. He does adapt and learn, but, I don’t know…
Are you sort of pointing out the absence of breadcrumbs? That there’s a bit of a lack of narrative through the film?
Yeah. There’s no escalation. All of those vengeance deaths mean exactly the same thing. So you’ve gone [gestures with hands to indicate intensity] 0, 0, 0, massive point of trauma, 100, and then 80, 80, 80, 80, 80, 80, 80, 80, 80. But because I’ve had that 100 [laughs], I’ve still got the ringing in my ears, and you’re still trying to deliver 80 the whole time.
And it’s just not for me.
How closely can you compare something that you’ve seen and had been able to take some positives sort of out of, as opposed to this sort of wholly negative experience?
I’m trying to think of a movie that I’ve seen that’s bad, that I’ve walked away being like, “Well, at least there was something.” Oh, I’m really struggling to think of the last movie that I watched that was really dogshit.
What’s the last film you saw that you really liked?
Obviously, that’s a taut, claustrophobic, faster-paced thing. But the Venn diagram of people that like it, I’d say, wouldn’t be necessarily hugely different from the people that also like Mandy.
Absolutely. Yeah. I’m not one generally for scary movies. I guess that’s the other thing is that fundamentally I find it very hard to get into, I should say, movies that are invoking a negative emotion in any way. There’s enough of that in the world. Why are you putting more of that in my life without saying a lot about it? Yeah. Scary movies just feel like they’ve found a way to ruin sitting down. It’s like there are cushions, but I am still very tense.
You are probably right! Most other people there were enjoying themselves. I knew nothing about the film going in, which is part of the fun/risk of a festival. I learned that I am not part of that specific audience, and sitting in the middle of that audience makes my heart hurt
— Rhys Mathewson (@Rhyspect) July 31, 2018
This tweet goes back to what you were saying before about that disconnect between people or thinking about other people, right?
Yeah, it was. It was just the sheer enjoyment. Violence begetting violence doesn’t do anyone any good. And that was a room full of people being like, “Red is doing so much good.” And that made me feel… it made me feel very lonely, I will say.
I honestly think that I experienced some of the same emotions that you did watching that film because feeling lonely was definitely something that happened to me, as well. But it aligned with my enjoyment of the film, weirdly. So I think all of the rational things that you just said up here make perfect sense. But I can’t help but think they’re actually reinforced by what the kind of guts of this film is to some extent, as well.
What I’m going to do now is show you a series of images. Could you share the first thing that pops into your head?
Fuck that guy.
Fuck that guy.
Yeah, okay, we get it, mate.
Now, that I did enjoy.
Pointless. No. Oh, no. That’s not fair. I’m going to give that surprisingly terse.
Just how much do you need?
What about the film sticks with you most? is there a slideshow that you’ve got in your head, or what’s still lurking in there?
It’s such masculine violence the whole time. I don’t think it was making enough of a comment on what it was portraying to justify portraying it in a way that leaves me feeling shit. Because there’s the trauma, and I will say, I was getting into it at that point. It went a little far for me, but when that started I was like, “This is tense. I’m invested in what happens to this character and how this plays out. And I’m glad that there’s that near miss.” To then have that burned down in front of me, and we sit on it for a while, was awful. And I know that’s the point, but then the upshot of that is just more very masculine violence because the climax of the revenge is so analogous to the male orgasm [laughter]. It’s like, “Everything you’ve done is gone. This woman that we all love is the victim of masculine violence. And now, here’s more masculine violence, but this vision of it is OK because it’s OK.”
Now, no one’s wrong about their reactions to films. And plenty of artists of different disciplines basically say “We just want people to feel something, man.” And you really did. I don’t think that’s probably the desired intent there.
I also don’t think that that’s valid [laughs]. People going, “We just want people to feel things.” That’s just… you’re swinging wild.
Is it fair to say that this is the toughest time that you’ve had watching a movie?
By a country mile. By a country mile.
Do you think this is going to affect how you approach films in the future?
Yes. I will never see something Elijah Wood [who you can see below liked Rhys’ tweets] makes ever again [laughs]. I don’t think I will go in as blind to particularly film festival stuff again. That’s fine. That’s just a learning curve.
You’re a young man. There’s a lot of time, God willing, for you to carry around the aftermath of Mandy in your head. You’ve said you’ll be careful of film-festival films. Do your research. But do you think there are any other lingering aspects to it?
It made me look at my own work in the sense of, “What am I leaving people with?” Though the rules are different for comedy because, fundamentally, comedy has to be a positive experience. Comedy’s done a shit job if you leave feeling really sad.
Do you live in fear that one night, you’ll come across an experience where someone is having an “I’m watching Mandy” in your audience?
Oh, and I’m sure they have [laughs]. I’ve done some shocking gigs to dead silence. I’m sure that people have been like, “Why is this idiot wasting my time?”
But that wouldn’t be with the benefit of the crushing-weight-on-the-soul elements?
Yeah, that’s fair. No, because I don’t think anything I do is that necessarily polarising. Yeah. This film was the first time I really noticed that masculine violence thing. And it’s really made me more sensitive to it in other movies and things since then. And that might just be the era that we’re living in and being more aware of that. But it’s certainly something I notice more now since then.
What would you say, if you were called into a meeting and asked to contribute some ideas for Mandy 2?
Have the fates of the couple switched would be my first one. Immediately, it far more justifies the second half of the movie in reveling in the violence. There’s about 15 minutes that needs to be cut from the start. It was far too slow for me without really eking out any new stuff.
Just watching a woman burn alive is so upsetting. Too real for me. Yeah. Too real for me in a way that reflects the real world, which means that it’s well-made, but I disagreed with what it was saying, with its reflection of the real world. And Nicolas Cage is a fucking cartoon at this point [laughs]. Are you a wrestling fan?
I’m not a wrestling fan.
Right. He’s like when wrestlers get really old. So all they can do are their five big moves. Everything that people don’t enjoy gets stripped away. Old wrestlers, they can only do their signature stuff because that’s all people want to see, and that’s all they have the energy left in their bodies to do, and it’s a bit like that.
I totally get that Mandy could be a tough watch, and I’m super grateful to Rhys for sharing more about his experience. I think I better understand the process by which he found himself having such a profound bummer of a time, though I would watch the film again in a heartbeat, and will do so in its limited release (on now – see ticket link below).
This weekend you can see Rhys Mathewson doing two shows at Auckland’s Classic Comedy Bar on Queen Street. “They’re work-in-progress shows of new material for the comedy festival next year, and they are $10, at 8:00 PM” he tells us. You can get tickets here.
He can also be seen in The Fucket List web series: “I’ve got a little guest spot on that, and it’s very funny, the whole thing,” he says.