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Seeing Red
Arthouse meets grindhouse in MANDY, the mind-bending second feature from director Panos Cosmatos, in which a top-of-form Nicolas Cage seeks violent vengeance against the members of a Manson-like religious cult. Slarek becomes completely immersed in the trippiest genre film of the year, which hits UK cinemas tomorrow.
  "I became interested in this idea of making a revenge film that revolves around the spirit – not the religious spirit, but the essence of the person that's being avenged – and how they inform the psyche and reality of a person that's been left behind."
  Director Panos Cosmatos interviewed on The Brag*


Lumberjack Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) lives a peaceful life in a secluded forest cabin with his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), an artist and avid reader of fantasy novels who also has a job as a cashier at a nearby garage. On her way to work one day she is passed by a vehicle containing members of a small religious cult named The Children of the New Dawn and catches the eye of its Charles Manson-like leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), who that evening instructs his minions to bring Mandy to him.

Just how much more to reveal is a difficult call, but you won't have to look far to discover what unfolds next or find a picture of Nicolas Cage that will give you a clear idea. Hell, even the thumbnail for the trailer gives a sizeable hint, and the words being widely used to categorise the film should themselves quell any doubts you might have about where the story is heading. If you really want to go in cold, however, I'd skip to the final paragraph of this review and steer clear of any other information on the film you might come across.

Having said all that, by the time Jeremiah and his nefarious brood roll past the titular Mandy, plot development will probably be the last thing on your mind. Nothing about the opening 20 minutes of Mandy plays by any regular moviemaking playbook, and the strangeness doesn't abate one iota when Mandy is kidnapped and drugged and Red is tied to a fence outside with barbed wire by Jeremiah's people. If you want to get a vague idea what I'm talking about, try to imagine what would happen if David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Clive Barker underwent a mind-meld and decided to make a 70s exploitation movie after dropping an elephantine amount of acid. But even that colourful description will probably not adequately prepare you for what you'll encounter, unless you're a regular user of hallucinogenic drugs, in which case the film might make your head explode.

Mandy relaxes with a novel

Despite indicating early on where the narrative will head, nothing plays out in anything close to predictable fashion. When the Children of the New Dawn roll up outside Red and Mandy's cabin, for instance, the expectation is that they will simply break in and grab them. But instead lead member Swan (Ned Dennehy) blows into a stone-shaped horn and summons a band of demonic bikers, who enter the cabin like rogue Cenobites from Hellraiser and force Red and Mandy to the floor, where the camera locks onto their faces as Red is knocked unconscious and Mandy stares at him awaiting an unknown fate, while one of the younger New Dawn disciples is dragged off by the bikers for them to feed on. Adding to the nightmarish feel of the scene is the Lynchian electrical sparking and music that suggests we are witnessing the onset of a biblical apocalypse.

Whole scenes unfold as brightly coloured audio-visual montages, initially visualised as the sort of artworks that Mandy herself might create and building on the distinctive visual style of director Panos Cosmatos's debut feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow. Yet the hallucinatory beauty of the images is consistently and most discomfortingly undercut by a use of sound and music that suggests even the most innocuous aspects of Red and Mandy's seemingly idyllic life are shrouded in unspecified menace, while Mandy's discovery of a dead animal in the forest plays like a portent of approaching doom. We're a good way into the film before we get anything approaching a pure, untreated image with naturalistic sound and no underlying aural threat from the extraordinary, brain-battering electronic score by the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson (to whom the film is dedicated). Hold on to that moment, as it's not destined to last.

As brooding horror mutates into dark revenge drama, and Red tools up with a crossbow and the sort of self-forged axe that a mythical knight would use to battle dragons, the brooding, otherworldly surrealistic strangeness of the first half continues to transform every action and encounter, many of which are peppered with small bursts of action and explosions of extreme violence. Stylistically, Cosmatos experiments in different ways here, with sets and lighting and a use of colour that makes this vision of 1983 America feel as divorced from the reality as the fantasy world of Ridley Scott's Legend. He even has Red dream about Mandy in hand-drawn animated form (another reference, perhaps, to her artistic talents), while captions are rendered as the sort of lettering you'd find on the covers of the sort fantasy novels that Mandy enjoyed.

Red is made to suffer by the Children of the New Dawn

The casting is absolutely spot-on. If you're put off by the idea of watching Nicolas Cage lose his mind in a horror-themed movie by his hysterical turn in The Wicker Man remake then you really do need to put that understandable but unfair prejudice on hold. Cage is terrific here, as low-key as you'll have seen him in some time and able to make long and motionless stares oddly mesmerising, while his mid-film breakdown of utter despair feels desperately real in a way that I never thought I'd see an actor of Cage's sometimes flamboyant outbursts deliver (his single shot meltdown in a bathroom is remarkable on all fronts). His bulk and athleticism, meanwhile, goes some way to convincing you that he probably could take on the demon bikers if need be, and helps sell the idea that it would take more than a stab wound and a couple of beatings to keep this angry lumberjack down. As Mandy, Andrea Riseborough also has a way with haunting looks, one of which (in flashback) tells us everything we need to know about why these two seemingly mismatched individuals first hooked up. As cult leader Jeremiah Sand, Manchester-born Linus Roach is both enigmatic and monstrous, and gets more dialogue in one poetically deluded speech than Cage delivers in the entire second half of the film. There's a nice spread of interesting faces and twisted personalities in those playing his disciples, which include a couple of representatives from this side of the Atlantic in the shape of Irish actors Ned Dennehy and lwen Fouéré, French-born Clément Baronnet and Welshman Richard Brake.

Surprisingly, given all I've said above, the film is not without its moments of humour (one involving a car window should disrupt the flow but somehow just works), including a bizarre in-film commercial for a product called Cheddar Goblin and a gag involving a large metallic sabre penis. No, you need to see that one. But it's the film's sound and imagery and its unwaveringly and hypnotically sinister tone that really stayed with me after the credits had rolled, and left me with the sense that I spent two hours crawling around inside the head of a visionary madman who was tortured by movie-fed and acid-fuelled memories of his youth. I was left reeling, and for all its detectable influences and touchstones, I can still honestly say that I've not seen another genre film quite like it.



Mandy poster

USA | Belgium
121 mins
directed by
Panos Cosmatos
produced by
Nate Bolotin
Daniel Noah
Adrian Politowski
Josh C. Waller
Elijah Wood
written by
Panos Cosmatos
Aaron Stewart-Ahn
Chris 'Casper' Kelly (Cheddar Goblin ad)
story by
Panos Cosmatos
Benjamin Loeb
Brett W. Bachman
Paul Painter (Cheddar Goblin ad)
Jóhann Jóhannsson
production design
Hubert Pouille
Nicolas Cage
Andrea Riseborough
Linus Roache
Ned Dennehy
Olwen Fouéré
Richard Brake
Bill Duke
Line Pillet
Clément Baronnet

UK distributor
Universal Pictures (UK) Ltd / Park Circus Limited
release date
12 October 2018
review posted
11 October 2018

See all of Slarek's reviews