NIGHT OF THE LIVING DAMNED
by Bennett Campbell Ferguson
Above: Nicolas Cage in “Mandy.” Image via RLJE Films.
“You have no spirit everlasting, no radiant light.” Those words ooze out of the mouth of a religious cult leader known only as Jeremiah (Linus Roache) midway through “Mandy,” Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic rock opera of vengeance.
There’s both a joke and an unwitting film review nestled in Jeremiah’s words. “Mandy” is in fact filled with radiant light—great gobs of pink and crimson that cinematographer Benjamin Loeb spreads across the screen like fresh frosting. But if the film lacks anything, it is spirit everlasting.
Not that it doesn’t try. “Mandy” pelts us with cinematic gifts—heady symbolism, entrancing animated interludes and a delightfully deranged performance by Nicolas Cage. But giving and entertaining (or enlightening) are rarely the same thing, and for all of Mr. Comatos’ labored efforts, “Mandy” is less than zip—an empty, emotionless exercise that illuminates nothing more than its infatuation with its supposed brilliance.
“Mandy” begins in 1983 in a forest where Red Miller (Mr. Cage) is eking a living by felling trees. He spends his evenings with his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), whose name happens to be the film’s title, but it’s difficult to discern any trace of chemistry between them.
An early scene in which the two discuss their favorite planets is meant two spotlight the tenderness behind Red’s muskrat-like beard, but it’s nothing more than a self-conscious way of priming us for the inevitable moment when Mandy will be snatched by the ascendant Jeremiah and Red’s inner rage with rise from a simmer to a boil.
Jeremiah, a Christian who likes messianic power, but not virtue or selflessness, lusts for Mandy the way a finicky character actor might hunger for an Oscar. Yet the scenes between Ms. Riseborough and Mr. Roache are more vital than anything else in the film.
When Jeremiah exposes his genitals to Mandy and she retaliates with a barrage of delightfully cruel laughter, we’re not just witnessing a lurid spectacle—we’re witnessing a woman confront white male privilege and recognize that it is as absurd as it is demented. Each cackle is a soaring act of defiance.
Ultimately, the charge of the scene fades, leaving us with little more than Red’s plodding quest for revenge (which is set to an earsplitting, synth-heavy score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson).
Red sets out to slaughter Jeremiah’s unholy henchmen and while some of them are suitably creepy (particularly a cadre of demons dressed in spiky, “Mad Max”-style armor), the battles have no bite. Because the outcome of each poorly choreographed fight feels foreordained, “Mandy” becomes something at once disturbing and boring—not a story, but a series of executions.
Mr. Cosmatos unleashes a swath of visual tricks to hold your attention during his interminably long epic of murder (the movie lasts two hours and one minute and is exactly two hours and one minute too long) . He blurs the imagery. He flashes some lights. He throws in a scene with a tiger. He puts the title card at the center of the film rather than the beginning, apparently just for kicks.
Plenty of viewers will argue that Mr. Cosmatos doesn’t do anything simply for the heck of it—that he has crafted a meaningful meditation on the futility of revenge or a senses-distorting visual banquet, or words to that effect.
But I didn’t feel any of that. “Mandy” is many things—weird, ambitious, gory. Yet above all, it is hollow. Mr. Cosmatos’ last feature may have been titled “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” but “Mandy” suggests that he is incapable of going beyond anything. He is mired in a creative abyss that he mistakes for a vision. And if he wants to continue making films, he will have to significantly alter his approach, or, like Red’s self-defeating desire for retribution, that abyss will swallow him whole.