Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos enters Cannes Critics’ Week with his second film, the psychotropic arthouse horror Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough as a couple terrorised by cultists.
Over the years, Nicolas Cage has acquired a reputation as a mad dog actor. Whether gurning through Bad Lieutenant or the simply bad The Wicker Man, he’s a reliably entertaining presence – even if the material frequently plops in what was once called the straight-to-video bin. Fortunately, Cosmatos’ Mandy matches Cage grimace for grimace and achieves, at times, a transcendent midnight madness.
The first hour of the film sees Cage relatively subdued as we spend time with the eponymous Mandy (Riseborough), a young woman who lives in the woods with Red (Cage), her lover and – as in his earlier role in David Gordon Green’s underrated Joe – a lumberjack. Mandy has a big-eyed Sissy Spacek otherworldliness, fed by fantasy novels and conversations which revolve around favourite planets. Basically, a Roger Dean poster become woman.
Their idyllic life is torn to pieces when she catches the gimlet eye of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a Manson-esque leader of psycho-cult Children of the New Dawn. With the help of a demonic coven of bikers a house invasion ensues, Red is tied up and Jeremiah attempts to seduce Mandy with the help of acid, a mutant insect sting and a self-penned space song in the style of The Carpenters. Unsurprisingly, things do not go well, but it’s refreshing to see Cosmatos avoid misogynistic leering – an almost unique restraint on his part.
If the first half of the film passes by in a woozy, languid dread, with slow motion speaking, Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography the colour of tinsel and a gorgeously retro score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (sadly his last completed score), the second half sees Cage finally let loose. The transition is marked by a scene in which – wearing only underpants and a t-shirt with a tiger on it – he guzzles vodka in the bathroom, yelling and weeping, and generally geeing himself up for the vengeance to come.
What follows is more conventional in narrative terms. We even get some exposition via an old pal (Bill Duke); Red responding to the dire warnings with the ludicrously understated “Why do you have to be so negative?”; Red fuels up on a variety of drugs, like Popeye on spinach, tools up with weapons – even making his own heavy metal, axe-knife combo from scratch – and sets off to hunt the bike gang and Children of the New Dawn in the traditional reverse order.
The cumulative craziness doesn’t so much threaten as promise to go over-the-top. The controls have been set for the heart of the sun and whether it’s chainsaw fights or decapitations, Mandy delivers its wet deaths with gruesome wit and slavering relish. Mandy supersedes Cosmatos’ first feature Beyond the Black Rainbow on almost every level: both films are set in a fictional 1983, but rather than the comforting nostalgia of Netflix’s Stranger Things, Mandy is grimy and screwed up – a true arthouse video nasty.
The 71st Cannes Film Festival takes place from 8-19 May.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty