A Sabbath-shirted rocker’s dated van, airbrushed with fantasy landscapes and a tiger roaring against a full moon, Mandy is a ridiculous ride that’s also absolutely fucking awesome. At the wheel: Beyond the Black Rainbow director Panos Cosmatos, cranking the tunes, passing back the hallucinogens, and crashing this thing into homes and theaters alike. As it sounds, the trip is loud, surreal, and devastatingly violent—and adding to all three, Nicolas Cage is in the passenger seat, screaming his goddamn brain out.
Still, despite its assaulting style—and completely wacko trailer—Mandy is positively mainstream in comparison to the director’s debut effort. Its script, conceived by Cosmatos and co-written with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, could easily be something Rob Zombie lost in his dreads. Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough star as Red and Mandy, a happy couple living in a mountainous woodland so idyllic, a unicorn would be no more out of place there than on that cool-ass van. He lumberjacks; she reads dark fantasy novels; both lovingly stargaze as they speak sweet nothings. But, as broadcast by some dead animal imagery, their pleasantly Bambi-esque woodland life is about to get interrupted by some metaphorical gunshots.
Those come by way of a cult that marries psychedelic hippie churches with the backwoods freaks horror trope. Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) leads his handful of followers, looking like some kind of white warlock but actually more of a Charles Manson stand-in—he rants about pigs, has pathetic musical ambitions and obsessions (though he prefers The Carpenters to The Beatles), and angrily babbles insane shit on the regular. Incidentally spotting Mandy while passing in his own, not-badass van, Jeremiah becomes obsessed with her, demanding his “family” fetch her, which they do in the craziest way possible: with a biker gang that combines Cenobites, Gwar, and Game of Thrones‘s resurrected Mountain into an absurd, LSD-and-blood-fueled mania. Cage, of course, goes out for vengeance against them all, picking up drug and alcohol power-ups at each checkpoint in a bloody bender that ends in a scene that sees a notorious MacGruber moment meet Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. (Don’t worry: he hand-forges his own glittering battle axe first, duh.)
After facing valid style-over-substance critics with Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos manages to here use the fairly boilerplate revenge-horror plot to let his colorful visual palette go wild more cohesively. He’s still quite deliberate in his pace, and, Dario Argento-style, he’s still not concerned about the sources of his scenes’ numerous party lights, but the trippiness is grounded by the straightforward locomotion of Cage’s simple quest—though it helps that psychedelia is now an essential part of the plot. Scenes of LSD (and other substance) use let the director go meaningfully crazy with effects, culminating in a prologued, scarcely-perceptible ping-pong dissolve between head-on close-ups of Mandy and a soliloquizing Jeremiah. It rattles even the sober mind, so for as tempting as it might sound, do not watch this movie high.
Riseborough gives a lot to what ends up being a fairly slim title role, projecting unexpectedly defiant strength through her pallid, doe-eyed, Shelly Duvall exterior, and Roache monologues his way into a cruel and believable “Jesus freak” of a nutcase antagonist; vengeance be damned, you’re going to want to see this guy die gruesomely. But clearly this is Cage’s showcase. A howling, unhinged Cage isn’t anything new, but thanks to his grossly absurd output, it’s only on rare occasions that he’s able to propel a film so well. Playing distraught, rage-filled, and increasingly substance-addled, his manic performance is more than apt and often fantastic. In Cosmatos’s otherworldly, bat-shit Pacific Northwest (maybe?), anything else would be underperforming, and Cage is certainly never going to be charged with that.
As telegraphed by t-shirts, books, and many, many images, Mandy’s van is built for fans of heavy metal, Heavy Metal (a few crudely-animated sequences are tucked into the LSD scenes), Troma-style practical gore, and Nicolas Cage himself (whether the film nods to Drive Angry and this shot from Bringing Out the Dead is up to you). But while riding in this vehicle’s seatless, carpet-lined rear is sure to be uncomfortable for anyone else, it will be hard for anyone not to find some charm back there—from late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s spot-on, unfortunately near-final score; to the director’s ingenious use of TV’s Emergency Broadcast System blare as a disarming diegetic pause; to that scene’s preceding television-driven moment, when Too Many Cooks creator Casper Kelly gives us an off-putting, hilarious parody of a 1983 mac-n-cheese commercial. Mandy isn’t the best nor the scariest of the many ’80s-set and/or indebted horror pastiches of the last decade, but it’s certainly the biggest Experience. Ass, gas, or grass—nobody rides for free, but its worth getting aboard.
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Studio: RLJE Films
Runtime: 121 minutes
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Bill Duke, Richard Brake, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouere, Sam Louwyck, Hayley Saywell