Visions of Fire and Fury In Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy

Reviewed by Alci Rengifo

The mythological still channels our innermost desires. Myths crystalize what we wish to be, or how we would like to divide the world in terms of good and evil, with a simplicity that is crystalline. This same mythic power fuels Mandy, a wild and haunting cinematic creation. A hallucinatory film with the logic of a nightmare, it manages to combine camp, horror and moments of profound drama in a bizarre yet beautiful canvas. Director Panos Cosmatos announces himself here as an original talent on par with other recent masters of trippy cinema like Nicolas Winding Refn or Guy Maddin. Yet while Cosmatos may bask in the kind of outrageous, visceral creativity more common in post-modern experimentation, his film is a myth forged out of deep fires. It is not an exaggeration to call it Homeric, for it is a journey that feels classic even as it takes place in a modern world. Completing this film’s strange power is Nicolas Cage, who delivers a performance of astounding fury, as if he were a fanatic engaged in holy war. There is a lot of blood in Mandy, as well as chainsaws, burning buildings, drugs and even animation, but it’s never shallow or stale.

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Andrea Riseborough as Mandy Bloom, in Mandy

The movie is set in 1984 in a wilderness identified as “The Shadow Mountains.” A logger named Red Miller (Cage) lives with his beloved, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), in a cabin home beneath cosmic skies. While Red works in the forest, Mandy manages a small shop while reading fantasy novels. One day while walking home she catches the eye of a cult leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), who summons forth a legion of demonic four wheel drivers to kidnap Mandy and tie up Red. Taken to a strange hideout, Mandy is drugged by Jeremiah but refuses his advances. Rebuffed, the prophet takes revenge by burning her alive in a sack right before Red’s eyes. Full of absolute and vengeful rage, Red escapes, arms himself and prepares to track down Jeremiah and his evil cronies to, naturally, slaughter them all.

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Nicolas Cage in Mandy

Indeed, dear reader, the film itself is just as insane as the above description — insane but brilliant. Mandy almost defies categorization. Cosmatos forms part of the recent wave of directors obsessed with dipping into the pool of 1980s camp, even using title fonts in that vintage style so prominent in shows like Stranger Things. The music by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, who also scored the atmospheric landscapes of Arrival, is a nod to 80s synth and even metal. Electronic atmospherics combine with burning guitar chords. Cosmatos, who is in his 40s, has travelled into his memory banks before in search of inspiration. His previous film, 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, was also designed in the textures of a 1980s midnight movie. Wandering now in a postmodern landscape, artists like Cosmatos appear to be holding on ever so tightly to their childhood memories, while using them to conjure visions more than apt for this dark 21stcentury. Cosmatos embraces his love for nostalgia while going beyond it. The furnishings of this film may be from 1984, yet it is a world to itself.

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Ned Dennehy (Brother Swan), Linus Roache (Jeremiah Sand), and Line Pillet (Sister Lucy)

Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb crafts a hypnotic dreamscape for the director, filming the world of Mandy like a fever dream fantasy. The color palette and textures, rich in reds, shadows and skies full of planets and sumptuous firmament, look like something out of Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the last survivors of the classic surrealist tradition. Like Jodorowsky, Cosmatos is utilizing the surreal and fantastical possibilities of cinema to create an experience both visceral and meaningful. In his 1970 classic acid western, El Topo, Jodorowsky follows a black-clad gunslinger as he embarks on a zen-like journey through blood-soaked, hallucinatory landscapes. The aesthetic of the western is fused with an occult sumptuousness that can range from debauched to spiritual. In his follow-up, the even grander The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky fills nearly every frame with dreamlike, piercing imagery. Frogs dressed as Aztecs and Spaniards enact the conquest of Mexico, fascist troops march with crucified and skinned dogs, and a capitalist factory manufactures weapons and cosmetics.

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Ned Dennehy

In this same tradition, Cosmatos uses his own obsessions to craft a tale of revenge. He paces the first act of the film with an immersive, eerie tone worthy of David Lynch. It is a world beyond this one, not even nostalgic, but a fantasy creation with an 80s vibe. Some of the imagery also owes to the pop art of the period and right before it. Fantasy and rugged mythology was prevalent in the world of heavy metal, with bands like Iron Maiden and Dio featuring album covers that looked taken from artworks by Frank Frazetta. Frazetta defined the pop aesthetic of myth, painting album covers, paperback covers and comic book posters like a deranged Romantic obsessed with Vikings, barbarians and Valkyries. His rich sense of detail, combined with a love for the body as a chiseled sculpture, was an influence on films like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian. Today artists like Joe Jusko continue the tradition. These influences are mentioned because they are all present in Mandy, with even the title character reading a fantasy paperback with a Frazetta-style cover. The villain, Jeremiah Sand, has the look of some strange, Nordic warlord turned hippie psycho. . .

Nicolas Cage

To read the rest of Rengifo’s review, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/panos-cosmatos-mandy/

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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