Explaining Mandy is tricky. Is it an eighties pastiche? A goof presented as high art? An excuse for Nic Cage to bug his eyes out a lot?
It’s all of these, but to really understand the soul of the film it needs to be experienced. Thinking back on it is like half-remembering a nightmare with lots of heavy metal imagery. What lingers is the constant feeling of dread and the vividly-coloured images, stylised within an inch of their lives.
Movies set in the eighties with an exploitation bent have become pretty commonplace, but what distinguishes Mandy (aside from its artistry), is the way it treats its story with real sincerity. It’s funny in a ludicrous sort of way, particularly in its increasingly bonkers second half, but director Panos Cosmatos doesn’t lose sight of his characters’ feelings. More than anything, it’s actually really sad.
For a good chunk of the movie we’re just hanging out with Cage’s forestry worker Red and his artist girlfriend Mandy, observing their sweet interactions. Pay attention and you’ll see the implication of some dark backstories. The suggestion is they’ve found solace in each other.
Which makes it all the more tragic when things turn to custard, and hoo boy do they ever.
It shouldn’t be overlooked how good Cage is. Gentle and loving in the first half, in the second he becomes a creature fueled by grief and rage, and in both modes he’s captivating. Much has been made of his more gonzo moments, including the now-infamous sequence where he goes berserk in a bathroom while chugging vodka, but resist the temptation to laugh at Cage-the-fading-movie-star and you’ll see that what he’s doing is committed in a way a lot of actors just can’t touch.
And as good as he is, Andrea Riseborough is better. It’s her character that gives the movie its soul, haunting every frame even when she’s not on screen. There’s a good reason why Mandy is named after her.
So yes, this is a film with demon bikers and chainsaw fights, but there’s a lot going on under the hood. Cosmatos has made the most tragic, psychedelic revenge movie possible, and loaded it with images that I guarantee will haunt you. Alternately beautiful and bludgeoning, Mandy is the real deal.