Panos Cosmatos’ gloriously grotesque and stylish horror mash-up Mandy was by far my most anticipated film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival (though when one utters “Nicolas Cage in…” around me when describing an upcoming film, my tickets will be purchased in a matter of minutes following the conversation), and I’m pleased to say to you that it doesn’t disappoint in the slightest.
Cosmatos has always gotten odd flack from certain circles for his emphasis on visuals and tone and how well his soundtrack meshes with his images, as it was with Beyond the Black Rainbow, but he may have found the key ingredient to making his secret sauce taste as good as his fans think it does: Solid performers like Cage and the wonderful Andrea Riseborough (who I think is in at least five different films in this year’s festival line-up), who ground the film in something reasonably and recognizably emotional. It’s the best movie I’ve seen at Sundance so far this year, and I can’t wait to see it again.
The first hour or so of Mandy pretty much aligns with what you’re expecting from Cosmatos, airy and interesting visuals with the occasional signal broadcasting through the noise) though with a few new interesting visual ingredients added to the dish. This time, he’s aping the smoke-filled starkly colored woods of mid-’80s Ridley Scott though filtered through a lens that’s easily recognizable to fans of Black Rainbow. We get glimpses of Cage’s home life with Riseborough, and though I feel that it’s horrible that I even have to say this, serious actor Cage shows up for work. He turns on the charm easily, and acts nurturing to Riseborough’s wounded and spaced-out temperament (he’s even given an amazing joke about CHIPs, of all things). And then the cult shows up, and their leader, Linus Roache, decides that he wants Mandy for himself no matter what.
Roache is honestly fascinating here, because it feels like he’s playing the public’s idea of Nic Cage, though he’s got Danzig’s short stature and Ric Flair’s fashion sense. Did I also mention that they have command over a group of bikers who look like the Cenobites from Hellraiser? No? Well, they do, and they invade the home that the couple has established for themselves on the shores of Crystal Lake (lol). Mandy is kidnapped and Cage is tortured, and one amazingly trippy psychedelic sequence results in Mandy’s untimely death at the hands of the cult. Cage is left for dead but manages to escape, and after one commercial interruption, he loses his shit in an epic fashion in a bathroom that looks like it was ripped right out of the Overlook Hotel.
That’s when the movie kicks into high gear and stops being only for the stoners in the audience, and Cage goes and pays a visit to a local hermit and arms dealer, played by the one and only Bill fuckin’ Duke. In case you might not know who he is, Duke’s a fan-fucking-tastic character actor that’s instantaneously recognizable to ’80s heads from his work with Arnold Schwarzenegger in films like Predator and Commando (being, in that film, the Green Beret that Arnold “eats for breakfast”). He hasn’t lost a single step since those days, and he banters with Cage in a way that gives the movie some authenticity that, while not desperately needed, is much appreciated.
Our boy Cage then fashions himself a particularly epic fucking weapon and goes on the hunt, to kill the motherfuckers that ruined his idyllic life. To say much more would be to spoil the immense joys of watching this hour unfold, but I’ll list some of the films Cosmatos alludes to in that time: Heavy Metal, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Man With the Golden Gun, Blade Runner, Mad Max, and plenty of others. You’ll have fun spotting the influences, as opposed to finding them cloying like every other goddamn ’80s homage.
The one film I keep coming back to in trying to describe the second half to other people that I’ve met on the street in Park City is Star Wars, not as a measure of its quality, but rather to highlight Cosmatos’ skill at blending his genre influences together into something that, on the whole, feels blissfully fresh. Mandy is just wonderful, from its performances (god bless our Lord and Savior Nic Cage) to its script to its utterly fascinating synth-laden score by Icelandic composer and frequent Denis Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johannson (who might have put some of his abandoned Blade Runner 2049 score into certain moments here).
It’s a great blend of style and substance, full of beauty embedded throughout the kind of deranged fun that our favorite classic cult films can, and I highly recommend seeking it out whenever it hits your favorite midnight movie theater. Just time it so the acid starts to wear off once hour two starts up, because you might come back changed, dude.
Nick Johnston is running amok at Sundance. Follow him @onlysaysficus. Featured ‘Mandy’ image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.