Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Revenge is a dish best served weird in 'Mandy' (movie review)

[MANDY opens in Cleveland on Friday September 21st exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre. It’s also available to rent or purchase on most major streaming services, or you can wait until October 30th if you want to buy or rent the film on DVD or Blu Ray.]

I’ve noticed a lot of movie trailers using the phrase, “from visionary director so-and-so” lately (and I’m not the only one). The vast majority of the time this is hyperbole at best, and often flat out bullshit. In the case of Panos Cosmatos, the director and co-writer (along with Aaron Stewart-Ahn) of MANDY, that phrase may actually be an understatement.

This is a film of eyeball-searing beauty and horror, an acid trip of violence and revenge on one hand, and love and melancholy on the other. It evokes the aesthetic of the eighties while at the same time forging new visual territory for the future.

Some might see this, as well as Cosmatos’ previous film BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, as a “triumph of style over substance”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – if your movie has enough style that it succeeds despite a lack of narrative or thematic depth, that’s kind of impressive – but it’s also not true in this case. There is plenty of substance here, and just because Cosmatos chooses to convey his themes and ideas more through visuals than dialogue and plot doesn’t mean they’re absent.

On it's surface MANDY is a pretty standard revenge story: Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) is a regular Joe lumberjack who seeks revenge when a bunch of drugged out "Jesus freaks" led by Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache) invades his home and kills his lover, the heavy metal and pulp fantasy-loving Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). We’ve seen versions of this story a thousand times before. Just never like this.

It is obvious just from the look of MANDY (exquisite cinematography by Benjamin Loeb) that much of what we are seeing should not be taken as objective reality. There’s that simple surface plot to hold things together, and if one doesn’t want to go any deeper, MANDY certainly works on that level. But it’s obvious that Cosmatos is trying to get at something much deeper and more emotional than a simple violent revenge film.

No doubt there are a number of ways one could interpret MANDY. I think this guy (warning - linked article contains spoilers) does a good job of interpreting it through the lens of Jungian psychology, but by all means watch it for yourself and draw your own conclusions first before reading anyone else’s take. Besides, I don’t think getting it on an intellectual level is nearly as important as just letting the movie wash over you and work on a visceral level.

I’ve already mentioned the film’s cinematography, but the score and soundtrack are equally important to setting the right mood and atmosphere. King Crimson’s “Starless” sets the mood, but its Johann Johannsson’s score (his last, it turns out – he died in February of an accidental overdose) that really enhances the emotions Cosmatos is trying to convey.

Of course what everyone is talking about is the performance by Nicolas Cage, described as both one of his best acting jobs and “batshit crazy”. I definitely agree with the first of those assessments, although I would also argue Cage has given other good performances in recent years (the leads in JOE and the unfairly maligned DRIVE ANGRY, and his fine supporting turn in KICK-ASS to name a few). It’s just that the good gets lost beneath the pile of direct to video garbage.

But to the whole “batshit crazy” thing. Yeah, that’s one tool in Cage’s toolbox, and he uses it a lot in the second half of the film. But for the first half, Cage gives a far more subtle and quiet performance that is just as effective. Look, I’m as guilty as anyone for laughing at his more ridiculous performances in turkeys like THE WICKER MAN, but in his best work, as here, Cage displays a lot of range.

The rest of the cast is fantastic, too. Andrea Riseborough is both otherworldly and very much grounded as the titular character. And Linus Roache is the quintessential bad guy. He reminds me a little bit of Julian Sands' Warlock, a little bit of Keifer Sutherland's David in THE LOST BOYS, and a little bit of Ted Levine's Buffalo Bill in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, with a touch of Lance Henriksen for good measure. Without a doubt he creates an imposing presence of evil, which makes it all the more potent when Mandy finds his weakness (and her strength) in one of the film’s best scenes.

There’s plenty more I could talk about, but honestly, you should just see this one for yourself provided you are down for a metaphysical revenge movie that is pretty quiet for its first hour before exploding into psychedelic violence for its second. MANDY has so far garnered mostly good reviews, but I’d hazard a guess the general movie viewing public will be decidedly more split in their reactions. 

MANDY is currently showing in theaters as well as being available to rent or purchase on most major streaming services. I opted to buy a digital copy and have no regrets, but I kind of wish I had seen this one on the big screen first. Might still try to catch it on its limited run for a repeat view, which one way or another is definitely warranted.  

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