Mandy, the newest film from director Panos Cosmatos, is a revenge thriller for those who don’t like revenge movies. Arriving as a sensation on the midnight movie circuit, it garnered a reputation as a balls-to-the-wall grind house throwback, the kind of movie you watch drunk and slurry with a rowdy crowd. But this could not be further from the truth.
Mandy is a movie that requires — and earns — rapt attention. It stars Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough as a loving couple who have found a kind of paradise for themselves in the Shadow Mountains, a peaceful, beautiful land in the middle of nowhere. Mandy (Riseborough) paints and draws, mostly goth figures, underground dwellers; Red (Cage) is a calloused lumberjack. The film’s first hour focusses its hypnotic gaze on the couple as they whisper in bed, drift on the lake, and go to work. It paints a picture of peace, and it does so with the kind of mood-building that is nearly peerless.
If this doesn’t sound like the Mandy you’ve heard of, don’t worry, it gets there. Mandy is a bloody film; skulls crush, eyes gouge, and chainsaws duel to grueling effect. Nicholas Cage, while restrained in the film’s first hour, unleashes himself in the second hour, and delivers exactly what we’ve come to know from the wild-eyed actor. But I worry that in all the discussion and praise of the film’s zaniness, we lose sight of what makes Mandy work: its sadness.
The revenge film is a tried-and-mostly-true genre. Boy loves Girl. Someone hurts Girl. Boy gets revenge. (With some gender-reversal here and there to shake things up.) But what so many revenge thrillers get wrong is the madness of it all, the sense that we are witnessing someone who has experienced something so horrible that they lose all sight of themselves; they are rendered a shell, stooped to the level of those they hunt. Irreversible, Gasper Noë’s controversial 2003 film, understood this. And so does Mandy. The violence that occurs, while spectacular, is not joyous. There remains little pleasure or relief to be garnered from watching such destruction. Instead, it is a descent into hell; a tragedy of savagery.
In a year of such cerebral triumphs as First Reformed and Roma, it is easy to overlook a film like Mandy. It is bone-deep genre work, with a specific nostalgia that won’t resonate with everyone (plus a scene where Nicholas Cage gulps a bottle of vodka in his underwear). But it is also one of the most emotionally astute films of the year, and a beautiful one at that. Colors meld and wash over the screen like the strokes of a painter. Faces fade so quietly, so slowly that it takes a moment to realize what you’re witnessing. And Andrea Riseborough delivers one of the year’s very best performances, drifting in and out of screen like a phantom. And that, ultimately, is what lingers: Her face, those wide eyes, and the overwhelming sense that, despite what you’ve seen, the worst is yet to come.