Nicolas Cage's 'Mandy' and the Weight of Expectations

MANDY Still 1 - Sundance 2018 - Publicity - H 2018
<p>Nicolas Cage plays Red Miller in <em>Mandy.&nbsp;</em></p>   |   Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The psychedelic revenge drama came out to rave reviews at Sundance, but did it set the bar too high?

The following is part of a monthly, spoiler-filled conversation series between The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. This month they tackled Mandy, a gory, psychedelic revenge drama starring Nicolas Cage. Set in 1983, Mandy — director Panos Cosmatos' sophomore feature — follows Cage's Red, a chainsaw-wielding lumberjack type who avenges the death of his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough, playing the title character). There is a chainsaw fight in this film. There's also a lot of weird ideas about the inevitable regression of pop and counter-culture. Brace yourself.

Simon Abrams: Mandy brings to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey in a very specific way: like Stanley Kubrick's film, Mandy made me wonder if it's enough to primarily enjoy a movie for its sensuous qualities. I don't think 2001 is an empty spectacle. I don't even think it works best if you treat it as a great light show that also happens to be an absorbing parable about how technology reflects humanity's neurotic self-regard.

But I've seen a similar argument made by our mutual friend Matt Zoller Seitz about 2001 as a great objet d'art, or a great piece of filmmaking that we should let wash over us. It's a tempting proposition, and I don't say that sarcastically. I had similar thoughts about Cosmatos' debut feature Beyond the Black Rainbow when I saw it at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

Now Mandy, that's something else. I'm mostly frustrated by the film's ideas as I understood them from an initial viewing (I'd like to rewatch it at some point). Granted, there are several singular images that have stayed with me for the past week. A pyramid-like church as it burns to the ground. Cage's grotesque, fluoride-white grin at film's end, once his character has fully descended into madness. The way that a human head, removed from its body, burns like a waxy Jack O'Lantern.

But are these superficial pleasures? I suspect that you and I are not far apart in our intellectual understanding of this film, but are probably standing at odds re: enjoyment of Mandy's trippy/quasi-avant garde aesthetic. Mandy isn't sitting well with me right now because I wanted to be seduced by Cosmatos' characteristic attention to texture, to lighting, to composition. But as I watched the film, I grew dissatisfied with what I was looking at. The ideas just aren't there for me ... or maybe they just aren't there right now.

I want to give myself the ability to enjoy this film like Matt does 2001: to see it as an experience, or — as you put it in our preliminary email exchange — like a really good cheeseburger. Because taking a film on its own terms is part of the job — and part of the joy — of watching and writing about movies. I'll try to explain why I interpreted (and disliked) Mandy as a Lynchian pastiche about the seductive dangers of worshipping/gorging on counter-cultural escapist fantasies, everything including fantasy novels, chintzy food commercials, science-fiction/horror movies, prog rock and psychedelic drugs.

But first things first: I'd love to read what you thought about the film, and how it treated you. Is the cheeseburger/comfort food analogy still true for you?

Steven Boone: I received this film as precisely tailored fan service for Gen-Xers who remember 1983 as a summer movie/cable couch surfer fantasia. I agree that its pleasures are in the same general category as 2001's — a sensory trip where the light, colors, spaces and surfaces amount to a seamless visual song. Kubrick used 2001's '64 World's Fair surfaces to sing of the origins and possible destiny of mankind. Cosmatos is riffing on the depths of love, evil, vengeance and religious ecstasy using the iconography of fantasy novels, sword & sorcery flicks, horror, heavy metal and, um, Heavy Metal.

I jam with it just fine because, as with Blade Runner, one of Mandy's undeniable stylistic ancestors, it all comes down like a gentle rain. The flow of images is so graceful, the visual notes so round and full, I submitted to it like one of the cult leader's flock. Guessing the influences of a particular flourish (David Lynch, Excalibur, prog rock album covers, etc) was more geek fun here than catching the stray references in Ready Player One.

If the film had stopped at just refashioning the pulp of the early 1980s into a midnight movie mash, it might have run aground at about the 70-minute mark. But that's just when it kicks in, on the power of the protagonist's devastating loss. It lets Nicolas Cage loose to embody grief and rage in all the ways you might expect from him. He's making this cover song — this pop sound-alike — his own.

Through settings and encounters out of an adolescent dream, Cosmatos gives Cage the visual equivalent of lavish song arrangements: the idyllic apartment that Red (Cage) shares with his ethereal geek-girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough); the forest that can go from an amber-green-pink glow in daytime to a furnace red at night; the demonic bondage biker ghouls and "gnarly" bloodthirsty Jesus freaks who tear Red's world apart …

What I least expected was how gory and pornographic the film would get at its extremes. As imagery from VHS porn became an odd focal point in a confrontation with a Hellraiser-ish leather creature, I realized this movie was drawing from anything a kid like me was forbidden to watch in '83 but most definitely did, snickering, with the volume down low.

So, definitely a tasty cheeseburger for me, but with something more. More like slow fast food. What kind of meal was it for you?

Abrams: To paraphrase Bell Biv DeVoe: this burger's poison!

But seriously, Mandy is more of the same "poisoned nostalgia," in Cosmatos' words, that he delivered in Beyond the Black Rainbow. The main difference is that Mandy is fixated on the half-seductive, half-nightmarish regression of 1970s counter-culture into the interminable present of the mid-1980s. For more on this theory, check out our mutual friend Steve Carlson's definitive review of Cosmatos' debut.

Mandy, like Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow before it, is set in 1983, the same year that the McMartin Satanic abuse trial kicked off. 1983 is was also the year of President Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, which Cosmatos includes a snippet from, specifically the part of Reagan's address where he insists that the majority of Americans are uninterested in, among other things, "pornography." That word seems to trigger Red — Cage's delusional/unreliable protagonist — so he turns off his car radio, and continues schlepping to his idyllic modernist log cabin. 

Red's clearly not buying what Reagan's selling. Likewise: Mandy — defined as she is by her simultaneous love and skepticism for the kind of trashy counter-culture fodder that you and I both love — immediately sees through Brother Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a hypocritical "Jesus Freak" who leads a cult of drug-taking, biker-gang-from-Hell-employing hippie types. Mandy laughs in Jeremiah's face when he tries to seduce her, even after he forces her to take some heavy hallucinogens and then lays on her a line about being God's messenger. Mandy not only doesn't buy it, but also humiliates Jeremiah in front of his guys. So she has to die.

Mandy's death leads to a fairly generic — both for the 1980s and the seemingly eternal present of genre cinema — revenge story, one where Red willfully sinks deeper into drug-fueled revanchist fantasies. He forges a Dungeons-and-Dragons-worthy battle-ax. He takes more LSD. And he defies every warning sign that he, like Arnie in Total Recall, is sinking deeper into a dream-like reality that he and Jeremiah's acid-fueled biker friends will probably never wake up from.

So if we are going to talk about Mandy as a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy, I think it's also important to stress how wearying its wet-blanket premise is. Like Cosmatos, several great filmmakers have noted that 1970s counter-culture — however you choose to define its values and realities — always had the potential to be as fascistic and unsparing as the main culture its proponents railed against. It's there in The Last Movie, Blue Sunshine, Electra Glide in Blue, the Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, and both The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its sequel (the last of which is explicitly referenced during Red's big chainsaw duel).

But — and this goes back to our discussion of what works and what doesn't in BlacKkKlansman — Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn's ideas are given willfully vague articulation. Mandy's glossy surfaces are often alluring — Cosmatos is easily one of the best Lynch copycats — but its creators' sullen cultural critique doesn't hold water for me given how frustratingly thin Riseborough's character is, despite some lines that reveal her character ("What are you reading?" "A novel"). Same for Red: Why is his yearning for escapism/revanchism symptomatic of anything? Eventually, it's hard to separate the cliches from the critique.

Mandy often seems like a trap, a provocation, or just an apology for selling more poisoned nostalgia. I left the film wondering is that all there is, which is annoying because I never had to wonder that while watching Beyond the Black Rainbow. That movie — a relatively simplistic progress narrative — leaves viewers with uncertain hope for a future beyond the 1980s' encroaching darkness. Mandy, by contrast, feels like a paradoxically celebratory condemnation of nostalgia and the conservatism that has led to its ongoing cultural dominance. We're not as rebellious as we think. It's just a cheeseburger, but I like it. And so on, and what have you.

Boone: Like an expert dumpster diver, I tend to take what savory morsels I can from works so deliriously stylized/wiki-shallow as this film and leave the rest. You mention BlacKkKlansman, a retro-stylized and generally flippant movie I hardly gave such a pass to — which makes this writer something of a hypocrite. But I'm going by an intuitive points system: If there isn't enough style to bypass and completely disarm my intellectual and common sense objections, thumbs down (or at least sideways).

For such a blithely derivative film as Mandy, our discussion will inevitably become an encyclopedia of cultural references, but on multiple streams. You pinpointed the movies that both inspired Mandy and attacked the same counterculture/reactionary themes more successfully. You're into the ideas that buoy images and push a cultural conversation forward. I remember what that was like, and can still hang with such discussions, by a thread. But for some time now the rhythm and texture of a film have come to mean so much more to me than anything the film is consciously trying to say or even explore. I've gone full fanboy.

Blade Runner is my go-to reference not because it shares any overt genre or story elements with Mandy but because it lives by the same charisma principle: the undeniable physical presence of interesting faces and bodies, gently kissed by light from strange, mixed and refracted light sources, inside densely layered settings with pools of darkness. Add rain, mist or smoke, to taste. This look has become a 30-year cliche — even the Dave & Buster's arcade in Times Square has wall panel lighting out of Alien. It's the people that filmmakers place in these settings and the rapt patience with which they observe them that can activate this style's timeless power.

A trillion essays have been written about what Alien and Blade Runner mean philosophically, politically and psychologically as visualized texts. But if you take away the plot and dialogue, they still stand as studies of human beings as frail, emotional wisps of flesh, barely holding on against the void. Veronica Cartwright's runny nose and crimson cheeks. Rutger Hauer's sorrowful rage. It is the casting, art direction, costuming and lighting, flickering at 24 frames, that render these films indelible.

In Mandy, we have Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough acting out the quiet bliss of a harmonious relationship for a good 40 minutes while evil encroaches softly from a forest easily mistaken for the one in Legend. The most spectacular event in this segment is a moment of pillow talk about their favorite planets. While Mandy geeks out, reeling off astronomical facts, Red just watches her lips move and eyes blaze, just happy to witness something more wondrous than the planets.

This, of course, is before we get to all the hard stuff that, as you mention, so many films have done before, and perhaps better. Chainsaws, porn and Ronald Reagan. Now that some time has passed since you screened the film, has any of it stuck to you, or are you already on to the next thing? I ask knowing that I'm addressing someone who has seen whole catalogs of this kind of freakout flick, from various continents and eras.

Abrams: Your compliments are appreciated, and your check is in the mail.

More importantly: your appreciation of Mandy isn't invalid by any means. I've had similar experiences with other films, including Beyond the Black Rainbow. I'm also more than willing to concede that my reaction to Mandy is at least partly defensive since the film came out to rave reviews at Sundance and become something of a critical darling.

But no, Mandy seems, upon first viewing, to suggest that our doomed past is still our present, that life is but a dark trip, and that our current pop art is just as reactive as the mainstream that it diverged from. 

Well, nuts to that. When viewed side by side with Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy looks like a toothless elegy for one possible future that quickly devolves into an unfair vision of our ugly, nostlagia-addled present. I don't buy Mandy's concluding image: Red in his car, slipping away quietly into a dreamy, unknowable forest landscape. 

I dislike Mandy more and more as I think about it because it strikes me as a movie that exhibits the same intolerance that it laments. Red's fate is supposed to be seen as a beautiful tragedy because the past — generalized and reduced to a few pop signifiers — was never as glorious as we (ha, "we") remember it. Once we close ourselves off to the possibility that a period, a style, a way of thinking inevitably leads to something worse...that's when we start to slide into the dogmatic chaos that Mandy seems to simultaneously oppose and embody. No, thanks.