“Weird shit” says Caruthers, who lives in an isolated forest caravan, of the activities of a terrifying near-demonic biker gang that his friend Red is planning to track down and kill.
It’s a good description of both the gang and gleefully bloodthirsty action-horror Mandy, though it doesn’t go far enough.
To be honest I had no idea how to review Mandy. The best I could come up with was an interpretive dance involving coloured ribbons to the sounds of Barry Manilow’s famous tune, finishing with me being chased by a chainsaw and doused in gallons of fake blood.
Actually that would have worked quite well.
The bikers haven’t been the same since some bad LSD; now they prop up a substandard hippie-religious cult with about six members, led by the narcissistic Jeremiah (Linus Roache, perfectly creepy and whiny).
Deep in a forest in the Californian Shadow Mountains, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and Red (Nicolas Cage) live quietly together. She is an artist, drawing the same kind of fantasy vistas she can see through their glass-walled bedroom. It’s 1983 and Reagan is on the radio railing against porn and abortion.
Outside the landscape and sky resemble one of those covers for doorstop-sized 1980s fantasy novels, all stylised fiery skies, billowing clouds and stark trees. Colours are red, orange, yellow, black, teal. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a young grunting woman clad in animal skins and wearing a special amulet had turned up.
This is a revenge fantasy, with the focus on both the revenge and the fantasy, after the cult kidnaps the couple and then burns Mandy to death. Imagine John Wick on acid, where instead of the bad guys killing his dog, they murder his wife and then fuck up his favourite t-shirt. A sleeping killer roused, remembering long-buried skills, picking off opponents with a relentless and bloody determination because there’s nothing else to live for.
The cult aren’t sophisticated, though unprofessional nutters are often the most dangerous. Its few members seem entirely devoted to their leader Jeremiah, a bargain basement David Koresh who looks like a dorky Iggy Pop. After drugging Mandy the disciples present her to their leader: “Do you like The Carpenters? I think they’re sensational” he asks her in all seriousness, before putting on a record from his own folk band, title track “Jeremiah”.
Even in her heightened, drugged-up state she’s not impressed by his earnest ramblings designed to prop up a fragile male ego. Even less so when he takes off his pimped-up bathrobe that makes him look like The High Priest Of Marks And Spencer.
This is the second review in a week I’ve had to bring up Margaret Atwood asking men and women what they feared from each other: men that women will laugh at them, women that men will kill them. Laughing at Jeremiah as he stands naked before her seals Mandy’s fate.
Red, bound with wire, is forced to watch her die. Escaping once it’s all over, he heads home then to Caruthers’ caravan to collect his stored weaponry, which he supplements with a home-smelted fantasy-style sword.
I honestly wasn’t sure at first if the bikers were meant to be literal demons from hell, summoned by the cult. But it does all appear to be real, terrifyingly real. The gang wear skull-like masks and black leather armour. One is covered in black rubber spikes which makes him look like a giant goth stress toy. They speak in malevolent whispers, their hissing so low I couldn’t make out what they were saying.
There’s a lot going on in Mandy, despite the relatively simple way it unfolds: a slowly scene-setting first half followed by relentless pick ’em off revenge in the second.
Religion is everywhere, unsurprisingly considering Jeremiah is just the latest in a long line of weak men using it to subjugate and control, particularly women. Red is tortured at different points in a time-lapse crucifixion: one time speared through the side, another time nailed through his hand. The thick wire used to hold and gag him looks like thorns. Which makes his return to the cult’s camp, after having watched Mandy die there, the Second Coming. And OMG The Carpenters! What was Jesus again, when he wasn’t being the Son Of God?
There are some hilarious moments though much of the laughter will be release anxiety. In case you’re overwhelmed by Mandy’s murder, there’s even an ad break when Red gets home – the infamous Cheddar Goblin, successfully selling macaroni cheese to kids like it’s a drug.
One scene elicited much laughter at my screening though I found it heartbreaking. It’s Red in his 1980s bathroom (think garishly pattern wallpaper and a fluffy toilet seat cover), with a bottle of alcohol which he is alternately swigging down and pouring over his wounds. His drawn-out screams are for Mandy and his agonising injuries, but then it turns into a primal scream of emotional pain, his body and soul ripped apart. It’s an incongruous picture but a devastating one, as he sits on the fluffy seat in white y-fronts and a t-shirt.
Red’s revenge on the bikers and the cult is straightforward and methodical. The violence is brutal, the deaths enjoyably gory and often wittily played out. Red is a fighter, long-lost skills combining with his rage and love to deliver vengeance from depths of fury he didn’t know he had.
Mandy is highly stylised, though within its world all is normal (and never paranormal). Lurid skies, animation, choreographed deaths – and it all works, thanks to Cage. Blending heartbreaking pain with murderous thoroughness, his character crisscrosses the line into maniacal enthusiasm, his face entirely covered by gelatinous blood, big white teeth grinning through the gunk. His and Mandy’s mutual dependence is sweet and trusting (Riseborough is excellent as his dreamily thoughtful partner).
The incredible score adds to the visions: sometimes doom-laden, heralding more skull-bashing; sometimes synthy; sometimes mimicking the New Age tunes we’re subjected to when we go for a dull but expensive massage. (This was one of the last films scored by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson who died earlier this year.)
Director and co-writer Panos Cosmatos is unhurried as he gets us to the place where Red will want to unleash his rage. It makes it much more frightening, despite the moments of odd humour.
Mandy is a bizarre and incredibly confident piece of filmmaking. I felt rather uninvolved viewing it, though it’s possible I was in shock from the sensory overload. But while I’m not one for violence, I have to admit it’s a pretty satisfying watch.
Watch the Mandy trailer now: