A fever nightmare, Mandy is a journey into the brain of visionary co-writer/ director Panos Cosmatos. Having already produced an indie horror classic with his first film (Beyond the Black Rainbow), the Italian-Canadian filmmaker gets more mainstream in Mandy. With cult legend Nicolas Cage in tow, Cosmatos went about creating a revenge experience. And, note, "more mainstream" does not equal mainstream. Cosmatos's sensibilities are not made for the MPAA or marketing schmucks and their catch phrases. But you can't deny the allure of Cage on a bloody hunt for vengeance with a chromed-out steel axe.
From the beginning, Mandy whisks us away. Set in the '80s, it takes place in a world not unlike ours, but one bristling with a hyper-sensitivity. King Crimson's ethereal "Starless" punctuates the opening sequence that introduces Red Miller (Cage), a logger who lives alone in the Shadow Mountains with his girl, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). They're happily in love, but their time alone speaks to past traumas neither can fully voice. Both seem damaged, but it's clear they've found peace together.
Red and Mandy's world is shattered by happenstance. On her walk to work, Mandy is spotted by cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) traveling by van with his group of followers. He doesn't stop, but later decides he must have her. Sand summons a demon biker gang to kidnap Mandy. They soon assault Red and take the girl where Sand can have his way with her. Defiant, Mandy resists and meets a horrible end that Red is forced to watch. Beaten and bloodied, they leave him to suffer.
Of course, leaving Red alive is a major mistake. Grief-stricken and fueled by impossible rage, he sets out to find the cult and avenge his love. The revenge genre is well-worn and the old abducted girl narrative has been done endlessly, especially in the past 10 years — but none of that matters. Mandy is so fine-tuned it transcends all the usual genre gripes. It's elevated pulp.
Cosmatos deserves much of the credit. From helicopter/drone establishing shots to 16mm Friday the 13th-type lensing to experimental sequences that actually understand what it's like to take acid (tracers!), the director's ambition cannot be denied. Cosmatos grew up in an '80s filmmaking household (his father is director George Cosmatos) and he infuses Mandy with the otherworldly weirdness of that decade, as well as its music. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson gives the movie a haunting sense of dread, of "crazy evil!" as Red declares, with tonal sounds and tones that beckon us closer to Hell.
The supporting cast is also perfect. Small roles are filled by seriously scary faces throughout. Riseborough, despite a short amount of screentime, leaves an indelible mark with her quiet performance. Sunken, unblinking eyes, pale, and perpetually clothed in metal band tees, Mandy looks like the ghost of someone long passed now resurrected. When Sand spots her from his van it's entirely believable how taken he is with her. Riseborough creates a three-dimensional character with little less than her face. She's unforgettable. And, speaking of Sand, Linus Roache brings madness to the cult leader with a devotion that conjures '80s legends like Klaus Kinski or Rutger Hauer.
And then there's Cage, the bubbling, lava-filled actor has been dormant for some time, suffering the ignominy of B-movie plotlines that go straight to DVD. He's back in Mandy, and he fully erupts behind Red's self-righteous thirst for revenge. Mandy's murder destroys Red's world entirely and the tentative grasp he had on life is gone. Whatever demons haunt him are released as he tracks down every person involved in Mandy's kidnapping and leaves them in a pile of gore.
Mandy, more than anything, is just filled with tantalizing stuff from scene to scene, and it doesn't exclude a sense of humor either. There's a Cheddar Goblin commercial Red stops to watch that is simply hilarious. The hero also takes a break to forge a two-handed, steel axe for his quest. It's a dream weapon. Blood-drinking bikers that haunt your dreams, acid eyedroppers, chainsaw battles, cheddar goblins... These kinds of details are why people remember movies. Mandy is full of them, and much more.