"Mandy" (2018) Review
There’s something to be said for aesthetics overtaking narrative.
It’s one of those things that I don’t think writers like to admit, but as important as screenplays can be to great films, it is a visual medium at the end of the day. A paragraph describing an ethereal forest is a very different thing from the shots themselves, and that’s before you factor in other things that build atmosphere like music and sound design. As uncomfortable as it can be to admit for writers, sometimes, you can let the story take the back seat.
That’s not to say that Mandy doesn’t have a story. It does, and it’s a story that’s simultaneously very simple and very complicated. The complicated parts involve a cult that may have contact with forces beyond our understanding, living deep in the wilderness. The simple part is that Mandy eventually turns into a revenge story, reduced down to its rawest emotions.
I’ll keep it a little vague, but the title character, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) lives in a small home in the woods with her logger boyfriend, Red (Nicolas Cage, whose name showing up in the cast list should tell you a lot about where this going to go). He works long hours in the forest while she works as a gas station clerk, taking spare time to read fantasy novels and books about planets. Unfortunately for them, Mandy is spotted by a van while walking down a road that just happens to have a local cult leader in it named Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache). He’s immediately convinced that she’s part of his cosmic destiny, and when she doesn’t go along with his delusions, things go wrong. Very wrong, leaving Red to go on a bloody killing spree through the cult’s members.
There are some details I’m holding back here and there, but most of that paragraph describes about the first hour of the movie. And that first hour is slow and meditative for the most part, and if a late title card is any indication, it technically might be an hour long prologue, because once the title card shows up the movie goes on its rampage.
First things first, this is a beautiful movie. The lighting, production design, and shot compositions are beyond gorgeous, and while most of the time I’m not really a big fan of praising cinematography too much, I can’t praise it here enough. It’s one of the big reasons this movie gets away with its long, lingering shots, weird dream logic narrative, and more.
Just as important though is the musical score composed by Johann Johannsson. I love Johannsson’s work and it breaks my heart that this is the final film he completed music for when he suddenly passed away earlier this year, but his final score might be his greatest one to date. An overwhelming mix of his atmospheric music mixed with heavy guitars and horror style synth, the musical score is easily the best I’ve heard in a theater this year and definitely ranks among the best film scores I’ve heard in the last couple of years. For me personally, it’s right up there with Oneohtrix Point Never’s score for Good Time, and it might even surpass it. The music is vital to the film’s existence and probably a solid 40% of my enjoyment with this movie.
But what really anchors this whole thing into place are the actors. Everyone here is game for the material and consequently I was way more willing to go along with the movie. I’ll get to the obvious standout eventually, but I do want to highlight a few of the other actors, namely Linus Roache, Andrea Riseborough, and Richard Brake, who plays a chemist that specializes in making LSD that may be the cause of the cult’s existence. Linus Roache makes for a fantastic cult leader, embodying total narcissism in a way that feels very appropriate, especially when his backstory is laid out (incidentally, his backstory is not to far off from a lot of actual cult leaders).
Andrea Riseborough is probably the most understated character as Mandy, but she gets a lot of mileage out of her understated mannerisms, and even gets one of the movie’s few monologues almost entirely to herself. And I’m really only mentioning Richard Brake because I love the guy and he’s one of my favorite character actors in the business right now. He really only gets one scene and it’s… Weird. Even by this movie’s standards, it’s pretty weird.
That’s not the performance we care about though. The one that makes this whole thing work is Nicolas Cage, who might be the only actor whose fearless enough for the material. If you’re wondering if this movie has a Nicolas Cage freakout in it… Well, what do you think? (That being said, it’s one of the saddest variations of the Nicolas Cage freakout I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely ape-shit.) Beyond that though, he’s an utterly convincing avatar of pure rage, no matter how weird his situation or decision making skills are.
His rage translates into some of the most hardcore violence I’ve seen in a long time. The fight choreography is pretty good, but it’s the sheer intensity of the kills themselves that make them so memorable (plus, one of them has a snap-zoom that’s downright hilarious in context). The fights tend to operate on a weird logic of their own, but I’m not complaining when one of those fights is a literal chainsaw duel.
That’s the funny thing about Mandy. It has a lot of things that normally make me hate a movie, but it’s all been mixed up in such a way that I can’t help but love it. I am kind of convinced that the music is the number one reason this whole movie works (I can’t emphasize that enough), but that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have some problems. The biggest one is that some of the dialogue is run through so many audio filters that it’s kind of impossible to tell what some characters are saying. It’s usually not a problem, but towards the end of the movie it totally is.
Other than that though, this is straight up my brand of weirdness. Mandy is truly unhinged and fearless in a way that movies of this type only dream of but never achieve. I hate saying that a movie is a “cult film in the making” (unless it’s Attack the Block), but Mandy will achieve cult status in record time.
And while you’re at it, try Cheddar Goblin’s Mac and Cheese! It’s Gobblin’ Good!