'Mandy': Film Review | Sundance 2018

On its own weird terms, it's extraordinarily successful.

Nicolas Cage goes through drugged-out hell in Panos Cosmatos' second horror film.

Half dread-soaked psychotropic horror film, half subhuman bloody revenge flick, Panos Cosmatos' Mandy ranks among the midnight-iest Midnight entries this or any festival has seen. Certainly not for the faint of heart or those with short attention spans, it is superlative in its mood-focused horror niche, one Cosmatos helped establish with 2010's Beyond the Black Rainbow, his only other feature to date. Viewers who found that film appealing but ultimately unsatisfying might want to give this weird but fully realized effort a shot; meanwhile, the presence of Nicolas Cage will entice viewers who might never have heard of it otherwise.

Cage plays Red, a lumberjack who lives with the eponymous Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in a remote cabin made of mismatched windows. Their existence here in the Shadow Mountains affords long whispered conversations that seem suspended in time; as they lie in bed, slow-emerging lighting and visual effects underline their distance from a world so unlucky as not to have found such connection.

It can be hard in early scenes to distinguish dream and reality, but Mandy does actually, while walking around doing chores, attract the attention of a cult called the Children of the New Dawn — or at least of their long-locked leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache). "Get me that girl I saw," he commands his followers after they get home.

So, with the help of some ATV riders in outrageous suits of armor, the crew descends on Red and Mandy's home, tying him up and capturing her. Nobody shrieks; all is quiet dread. They perform a ritual on Mandy involving a bad strain of acid and a wasp's sting, bring her into the living room with Jeremiah, and he poses the most frightening question imaginable at this moment: "Do you like The Carpenters?"

That brief comic relief does nothing to diminish the remarkable sequence that follows, in which — with the image all red and with movement leaving tracers behind — Jeremiah attempts to seduce the hallucinating Mandy, speaking directly to the camera in close-up as his face very subtly morphs into hers and back. He never blinks as he casts this spell; in fact, it's possible that nobody blinks in this film.

Suffice to say that things go badly, involving bondage and fire and "the tainted blade of the Pale Knight." (The language and aesthetic of circa-1980s fantasy novels and heavy metal runs throughout the film.)

At almost exactly the 60-minute mark, Red emerges from the conflagration badly injured and bent on destroying the Children. He gruntingly pours booze over his wounds and down his throat, growling through the pain; Cage, whose name certainly rhymes with "rage" here, begins to summon those primal extremes he sometimes employs in lesser movies. But any giggling in the audience is unfair, an anticipation of a direction the actor in fact is not going to go. Cage's character will spend the next hour not just insane with bloodlust but twisted by drugs that seemingly give him unreal powers. But Cage the actor will remain under the film's control, a clear inhabitant of the universe it creates.

Red goes to visit an old friend, Caruthers (Bill Duke), and says, "I've come for the...Reaper." Caruthers pulls a crossbow from a cabinet, then gives him some special arrows he has made. But when Red tells him who he's hunting, Caruthers (after offering one of the film's few pieces of straight exposition) says, "You will probably die."

"Don't be negative," Red replies.

Judging by action alone, the film's second half easily fits the revenge-flick template. Red finds those who've wronged him and picks them off, sometimes in spectacularly violent fashion, sometimes using a self-forged battle axe a Klingon would admire. But Cosmatos' ability to put us in Red's head — overwhelmed at first with pain and fury, then saturated by the strange drugs he for some reason feels compelled to try — make this much more than the usual exercise in vicarious bloodshed. At first elemental — more Valhalla Rising than Kill Bill — it moves toward something more in keeping with the cult that brought it about. As Red descends into their strange hideout (which is capped with an A-frame chapel that recalls the church in There Will Be Blood), this becomes cosmic horror, a spectacle meant to inspire awe. Mandy will attract a cult that puts the Children of the New Dawn to shame.

Production companies: Umedia, SpectreVision, XYZ Films
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Producers: Josh Waller, Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, Nate Bolotin, Adrian Politowski, Martin Metz
Executive producers: Lisa Whalen, Nadia Khamlichi, Todd Brown, Nick Spicer, Christopher Figg
Director of photography: Benjamin Loeb
Production designer: Hubert Pouille
Costume designer: Alice Eyssartier
Editor: Brett W. Bachman
Composer: Johann Johannsson
Casting directors: Lara Manwaring, Sebastian Moradiellos
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
International sales: XYZ

121 minutes