Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Mandy": review

[NB: spoilers.]

"Mandy" is a 2018 horror-thriller starring Nicolas Aaaaagggghhh!!! Cage as Red Miller, Andrea Riseborough as Mandy Bloom, Linus Roache as Jeremiah Sand, and Bill Duke as Caruthers. "Mandy" moves at a slow pace, but its plot can be summarized quickly: a loving couple—Red and Mandy, both of whom have dark pasts—lives a quiet existence in the woods. One day, while Mandy is walking along the road, a truck filled with cult members passes her, and the cult leader, Jeremiah Sand, is filled with the desire to take Mandy for himself despite the fact that he already has a small harem of weird women varying in age from young to old. The cult makes an arrangement with the local chapter of a society of demonic bikers (more "Hellraiser"-style creatures than humans); the bikers capture Red and Mandy, handing Mandy over to Jeremiah while leaving Red tied (nailed?) to a tree. When Jeremiah lustfully exposes himself to Mandy, she laughs scornfully, breaking the mood and humiliating Jeremiah, who then wraps Mandy in a bedsheet, hangs her on a branch outside the house and in front of Red, and burns her alive. Red, still bound to the tree, is stabbed in the stomach for good measure, and with that, the cultists leave. The rest of the movie is about Red's revenge as he hunts down both the biker-demons and the cult members after forging himself an axe that's meaner-looking than the one featured in "Blade of the Immortal."

So while Mandy, the character, doesn't even make it halfway through the movie, her significance suffuses the entire plot. In the movie's first half, Mandy represents the center of Red's existence: she's fragile, arguably already broken by an abusive father, but she's kind and gentle and creative. In the movie's second half, Mandy is Red's motivation for everything he does: he's driven purely by his thirst for revenge.

"Mandy" is tailor-made for Nicolas Cage, who long ago gave in to his nuttier impulses and has made a name for himself, in recent years, as a consummate over-actor. The film allows Cage to get his freak on, and the result is often hilarious—but not in the negative sense of "unintentionally hilarious": Cage gets to deliver some wildly inappropriate lines while he's chopping or skewering or otherwise mutilating some enemy. Example: when turning the tables on a biker-demon who has captured him, Red growls, "You are a vicious snowflake." It's the sort of hilariously off-key line you'd expect from Bruce Campbell, but Cage makes it work. When the same biker-demon tries attacking Cage again a few minutes later, Cage yells in a voice full of accusation, "You ripped my shirt! You ripped my shirt!" In that same scene, Red—a logger by trade—uses hand-to-hand fighting techniques you'd expect from a Green Beret. The whole scene is so wonderfully campy and incongruous that you're left to wonder just what sort of movie this actually is. I called it a horror-thriller above, mainly because it does contain some horrific scenes, but the camp and humor could just as easily lead one to classify "Mandy" as a twisted sort of comedy.

The movie's pacing is molasses-slow, especially while poor Mandy is alive. Things pick up once Red begins his rampage, but director Panos Cosmatos keeps us off-kilter through strange lighting and weird, surreal cinematography that turns the forest and mountain landscapes into something garish and otherworldly. The final upward pan of the camera reveals an alien sky that makes us wonder whether these events even took place on Earth. The imagery is doubtless going for some sort of symbolism, perhaps a representation of the alienated state of Red's soul, now that he's lost his one true love, who had anchored him to our world.

This is a fantasy, so plausibility immediately goes out the window when Red is stabbed in the gut. His stab wound, while deep, doesn't seem to bother him for the rest of the film's plot. Red's sudden demonstration of martial-arts prowess also comes as a surprise, but it's in keeping with the ridiculousness of everything else happening on screen. One baddie gets shot through the throat with a long crossbow quarrel; the baddie's response to this is to pull the quarrel the rest of the way through his neck to remove the offending projectile; after that, he's good to go for a little hand-to-hand.

For a film with such an indie, B-movie feel to it, "Mandy" has a stable of impressive actors. Cage, however silly he might appear these days, still commands a certain level of star power, and I thought he was actually pretty good in his role as the vengeful, agonized Red. Bill Duke, looking old and chiseled, appeared right as the movie started to get interesting; he delivered some creepy exposition about the cult and the biker-demons before giving Red his Reaper, i.e., his crossbow. Linus Roache, as cult leader Jeremiah, looked awfully familiar to me, and then I realized he had played the role of the ill-fated Thomas Wayne in "Batman Begins." I have to say, the role of Jeremiah is a 180-degree turn for Roache as an actor, but he gave what I found to be a fairly convincing and plausible performance as a cult leader saddled with the standard God-complex. I could have done without seeing him naked, but I suppose that scene was necessary on several levels: it revealed the depth of Jeremiah's self-delusion, and it made him vulnerable to Mandy's scorn. Andrea Riseborough, as the title character, was ethereal. It was a weird trick of the lighting, I think, but there were moments when Mandy would stare into the camera, and one of her black eyes would appear to grow bigger and bigger as she stared. The effect was unsettling, and it may have been entirely in my head.

All in all, though, I'm fairly ambivalent about this film. The revenge plot, once it begins unfolding, follows a fairly standard arc. The slow pacing at the beginning could have been sped up, in my opinion, without detracting from the story; cutting ten or twenty minutes out of the front end of the film wouldn't have done it any harm. The musical soundtrack kept coming back to a familiar-sounding leitmotif; at first, I thought it was referencing Barry Manilow's "Mandy," but then I realized it was the first few notes of Stevie Wonder's "Ma Chérie Amour." Why didn't the composer go with "Mandy"? Then again, Mandy was indeed Red's amour chéri. Upshot: watch "Mandy" at your own risk. I get the feeling that it tried to be a radical, fucked-up film, but in the end, it was a bit slow in some parts—a bit boring. But it did have its intense and funny moments, so the viewing experience wasn't a total loss. If you're a fan of watching Nicolas Cage go nuts, you'll thoroughly enjoy "Mandy." If you're a fan of Troma-style gore and Bruce Campbell-style humor, you'll also enjoy "Mandy." If you're not a fan of inconsistent tone and pacing, though, you might find yourself becoming antsy while watching this movie. If you're a religious-studies student, you might pick up on the notion of Mandy as some sort of innocent being who gets sacrificed to propitiate dark, chthonian gods. Burnt offerings are, after all, common in many religions.

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