Is “Mandy” Shallow Gore or Artsy Pulp?
Two Fandor writers duke it out over Panos Cosmatos’s ultraviolent Nic Cage vehicle.
In his young career, director Panos Cosmatos has gained a reputation for making aesthetically rich, fever dream films. Mandy, his follow-up to 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, has so far proven to be a divisive film. Advance reviews have been mostly positive, but there are also reports of people walking out of the theater. Recently, Fandor writers and movie culture investigators, Hannah Piper Burns and Joaquin Lowe bit the bullet, bought the tickets, and took the ride, all in the hopes of getting to the heart of that age old question: Is it any good?
Warning! Spoilers Ahead.
Joaquin Lowe: What were your expectations of the movie going into it? Do you feel that the film met them or let you down?
Hannah Piper Burns: It’s pretty clear from early reviews (and my experience in the theater) that I am in the minority as someone who really, really disliked the experience of watching Mandy. I’m familiar with Cosmatos’s past work and while I anticipated a certain degree of style over substance, so to speak, I was hopeful that Cosmatos would leverage his command of aesthetic and atmosphere in service of a genre film that defied, rather than reified, my expectations.
There are two major reasons I could have walked out of this movie had I not been writing about it for work. One has to do with a more holistic and complicated framework that I’ve been working through over the last year, about the responsibilities of artists and culture-makers in these times. Namely, to “Do Better.”
But I’ll start with a less personal critique: I thought it was incredibly dumb of the movie to kill off the most compelling character (Andrea Riseborough as Mandy) in the second act. After that, the movie had no stakes. That disappointed me greatly.
Also, this is going to sound ridiculous given that the movie is basically a ninety-minute exercise in “Cage Rage,” but I actually thought that Nicolas Cage was a bad choice for the role of Red. I get why he was cast, and I think his performance was what I expected, but I think someone like Javier Bardem or even Steve Buscemi could have brought something much more interesting to the role.
JL: Let's talk about the responsibilities of art — and more specifically — film in 2018. What is that responsibility? Can a film just be entertainment without having to serve as commentary? To lay myself bare here, I enjoyed Mandy (somewhat against my better judgment and preconceptions), but it is, in my opinion, an empty film; it's devoid of meaning. For me, it was like candy (hard candy, to be sure) but it was sweet and empty nonetheless. Watching it, I knew it was bad for me, but I kept watching.
HPB: I’d call it a fifteen-year-old metal head’s bong water and not candy, personally.
To say that a movie is empty of meaning is misguided. Saying you are apolitical is a political statement. And you know what? Maybe I am being unfair to the movie, or wanting it to be something it isn’t. But don’t you think all of this 80s nostalgia might be a super convenient way for (overwhelmingly male) directors and show-runners to elide the responsibility that the contemporary moment demands?
JL: I don't know if it's unfair to want art to serve a purpose, nor do I necessarily agree that being apolitical (in art, not in life) is a political statement. I do think a movie can serve purposes other than commentary; I think it can do things other than reference a current political or cultural climate. And I think Mandy is an example of that.
Now, where Mandy walks a fine line is in its violence, and more specifically, its violence against women. Maybe this kind of violence precludes a certain sense of escapism and forces it to be political. As far as storytelling goes, I do agree with you that Andrea Riseborough (Mandy) is compelling, and I was surprised when she was killed off so quickly. And I agree with you that this choice (along with a few others) lowered the stakes for Cage's character, though not necessarily for the worse.
HPB: I actually thought the violence, and since you mentioned it, the violence specifically directed against women, was so expected that it didn’t even shock or offend me, it just made me roll my eyes.
I think Cosmatos is trying to push the envelope in formal ways and not conceptual ones. He’s created a kind of iconoclastic low fantasy with Mandy and Beyond the Black Rainbow, and I do appreciate that.
The director that I keep wanting to compare him to isn’t Tarkovsky, as The New York Times review posited (a comparison which frankly makes me want to V O M I T); it’s Sam Raimi. The major differences are that Raimi’s camp and humor are much more emphasized, whereas in Mandy, the humor is also absurd, but in a more complex, less comforting way.
But maybe I’m swinging wildly. What do you think Mandy is trying to do?
JL: I do think Cosmatos's goal was to make a purely stylistic movie. The revenge "plot" is merely an excuse to showcase Nic Cage. I like your comparison to classic Raimi — the film bears similarities to his style, but lacks his ecstatic zooms.
I think Cage's goals are different from Cosmatos's, and, for me, Cage's performance elevates the movie. Honestly, on style alone, there wouldn't be enough there to hold me for the entire runtime. But Cage brings dimension to an otherwise flimsily written character.
There was a lot of laughter in the screening I attended, especially around Cage's performance. To be sure, there are moments in this movie (and lines of dialogue) that are intentionally ridiculous, but as a whole, I think his performance is not only a dramatic one, but an incredibly good dramatic one. I think what a lot of people don't appreciate about Cage is that he's rarely going for "realism" in his performances, opting instead for the surreal and exaggerated. These choices sometimes lead to performances that are... less than good, but other times, like in Mandy, it makes him extremely compelling.
I’m speaking specifically about the moment in the film when Cage re-enters his house after Mandy is killed. He goes into the bathroom and, to use your term, enters into full "Cage Rage." At this point, in my screening, the audience began laughing hysterically — and, I'll admit, it was a relief after the brutality of the last few minutes — but I found this scene extremely moving. Cage shifts between anger, shock, and the need to anesthetize himself. I think the schism between what Cage is attempting, and how he’s perceived in pop-culture keep many from considering him seriously. But for me the single reason this movie works is because Cage is extremely good in it. Riseborough is also excellent and is entirely responsible for carrying the first act of the movie.
This isn't to say that Cosmatos isn't doing interesting things beyond the obvious choices in style. There are little things in his storytelling that speak to greater themes. For example how both Red and Mandy are products of violence, which makes their little Eden all the more beautiful and all the more tragic when it's destroyed. I appreciated how Cosmatos hinted at these backstories, with Mandy's scar and the story of her father, and Red's crossbow in the custody of a mysterious friend. I also appreciated the timeframe, which implies that Cage's Red almost assuredly served in Vietnam.
Like you, I expected violence and thus was less shocked than if I had gone in "cold," but I was surprised by Cosmatos's pacing in the film, which is very deliberate, even in the third act when the movie’s violence reaches its climax.
For me, the movie is less about revenge, and more about a person's devolution, which is only possible for Red once he has nothing left to lose. He sinks into the madness and violence that was always in his character; he becomes inhuman. At a certain point, Red, and the movie, divorces from reality. It's hard to say exactly when this moment happens, but I think recognizing it is key to any sort of enjoyment a person might feel in watching the movie.
HPB: I totally agree with you that the devolution of Cage’s character is the “point” — the skeletal plot upon which Cosmatos was able to hang all of these flourishes that make him, him. Though, I’m going to go ahead and say what we’re all thinking, which is that killing off a woman to set a man’s journey into motion is both the oldest, laziest trick in the book and part of the reason we pervasively consider women’s pain, opinions, autonomy, and labor expendable in the service of men’s needs. And let me add that casting people who look “interesting” is NOT character development… but also the casting director should get a gosh damn trophy.
Where was I? Right. The thing we agree on. I think that moment of total transformation comes at the end with the final montage in the car. Well, first it’s the flashback to Red and Mandy’s meeting, and then it’s the car. We see Mandy from Red’s perspective, and then, when the perspective shifts and we see Red from Mandy’s perspective, we see what he has become.
JL: I agree with you that killing off the woman to set the story in motion is lazy storytelling and part of the problem in how women are perceived both in film and, even more sadly, in life.
For me, the separation from reality happens much, much earlier. Perhaps it's the moment that he takes the strange drug in the lair of the Black Skulls. From that point on Red is, to my mind, an automaton, devoid of humanity. When Mandy is murdered, he loses his heart. When he takes the drug he loses his mind. He becomes a golem, almost mythological. At the climax of the film, when he confronts Jeremiah (Linus Roache), Red informs him that "I am your god now." Besides this being a rather silly line it also informs Jeremiah, and the audience, about Red's transformation: He’s lost his humanity and become something less than human, but he’s gained something too — the ability not to feel. He's Galactus; he's eaten the world of the cult and made his own reality, which we see as he drives out of the woods after killing Jeremiah.
In two or three sentences, what is your final takeaway from Mandy?
HPB: Mandy is an exercise in aesthetic and archetype that’s not likely to disappoint genre fans, but might well disappoint anyone expecting more than a hesher-slasher, D&D fever dream with cinephilic pretensions.
JL: I don't know if I can beat that, but I'll try! Mandy is a shallow, if not aesthetically spectacular film adaptation of a heavy metal album cover, which is elevated by strong performances by Andrea Riseborough and Nicolas Cage.
Here at Fandor, we’re known for our cinematic banter, our televisual tête-à-tête, our visual volleys, our… okay, I’m out. But if you want more of Fandor’s Point/Counterpoint series, be sure to check out our discussions on “Skyscraper,” “Mission: Impossible - Fallout,” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”