Imagine getting sucked into a Kaleidoscope spray-painted with an Instagram filter on acid. It would be the most frightening, beautiful experience you’d ever have. That’s just about the best way I can describe Mandy: equal parts beauty and beast.
*There are spoilers ahead*
The premise of the narrative is nothing we haven’t seen before: a loving man and woman, Mandy and Red (Andrea Riseborough and Nicolas Cage), are torn asunder when Jeremiah (Linus Roache), the leader of a deranged cult of Satanists, decides to make the titular woman his prized asset. She is abducted by strange demonic beings and drugged with LSD, presumably to make her more amenable to Jeremiah’s desires. The plan doesn’t work, and for his humiliation Jeremiah decides to have Mandy burned alive in front of Red and then leave him to die.
The film proceeds to follow the revenge plot of many films before. Watching a person hack through a bevy of baddies is one of the most satisfying stories to experience on film. This year’s other big revenge film, aptly titled Revenge, is a female-empowerment film and a great about-face from the rape exploitation films from many years ago.
But, the events of the plot are set in motion by a rape. Mandy, on the other hand, has an inciting incident where a woman emasculates a man of (seemingly) power, and thus the male must resort to the only power he has left: the faith of lesser individuals to carry out his orders.
In other words, he has perceived power, as none of his authority is derived from any actual status aside from that assigned by his duped followers. Mandy strips away his masculinity, and by extension, through the belief of his followers, his divinity. She is not raped. She is held captive and drugged, but she is given the choice to accept Jeremiah’s “offering”. By refusing, Mandy displays a power that Jeremiah and his followers could never have: agency. She displays more power in this single act than Jeremiah has in the entire film. And this rejection occurs while she is under the influence of hard psychedelic drugs, which is to blame for the unconditional servitude of the rest of the cult as well as Jeremiah’s insanity. No man or drug can strip her of her ability to choose.
It would be easy to write the film off as misogynistic because the woman appears to merely be a means to propel the man’s story. One could argue that Mandy suffers solely because she is a woman, but that would be a short-sighted view of the weight of her character and the power she wields. Before she is killed, Mandy is the protagonist of the
story. It isn’t until Jeremiah sees her randomly walking down the road that she is viewed as an object, and through her abduction she eschews this objectification when she laughs in Jeremiah’s face as he disrobes and stands naked in front of her. The majority of critical media likes to focus on the fantastic performance by Nicolas Cage and the colorful production, but without this kind of set-up the story is the same old tale we’ve seen before. Mandy is the star and the violence and lunacy in the second half of the film is a repercussion of her choice.
The other star of the film is definitively the cinematography and the lighting. There is no shortage of beautiful photography, hypnotic colors and visceral imagery that enhance the drug-like effect of the plot. It is revealed that the majority of characters are on LSD, so the choice to infect the film with the enigmatic, vibrant palette is an invitation to the audience to experience this film more than just watch it. The resulting imagery is a sensory acid trip.
And, what else can be said of Nicolas Cage? He’s great here without going over the top despite the craziness his character has to endure and inflict. He has very little dialogue and uses his expressions and physicality to do the speaking, making him a perfect choice to play Red. He makes it a pleasure to watch the carnage.
Director Panos Cosmatos has done what few filmmakers are capable of doing: he creates a tone from the very first frame and never lets it go. The synth score, barrage of color, incessant use of cloudy framing, camera flares and slow motion photography never wane throughout. You feel like the edges of reality are blurring right in front of your eyes and it’s hard to tell which images, or if any of the images, are actually there.
This is a film you feel as much as you watch. I loved it.