When F*cking Hell Seems the Only Appropriate Response: A Review of Mandy

Even though I am a merely an occasional amateur artist, I still hope that one day one of my creations will make an impression on my audience, however large or small. Yesterday I witnessed an entire cinema sit in silence for almost half a minute before one person spoke up. “Fucking hell,” he said. If anything I produce ever elicits a similar reaction I will consider my creative potential fulfilled.

The cause of this collective state of shock was Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’s second feature film. The plot reads as simple as it sounds Halloween-appropriate. Main character Red, played by Nicholas Cage, lives peacefully in the woods with his partner Mandy. When Jeremiah, the leader of a Manson Family-esque cult, spots Mandy during a walk in the woods he becomes determined to “have” her. The film, luckily, does not fail to problematize this notion of gendered ownership. When Mandy refuses to cooperate the cult kills her and leaves Red for dead. When Red wakes up all he wants, naturally, is revenge.

All this sounds like typical exploitation film stuff, and indeed Mandy frequently nods to this rich tradition. The King Crimson song underlining the opening credits alone broadcasts the film’s intentions: Cosmatos is not shy about his sources of inspiration. But the film is more than mere pastiche. While its 1980s vibe will appeal to cult film aficionados, as it did to me, Cosmatos and his talented crew borrow freely from the genre’s extended lexicon to create something altogether more original and weird.

Despite being marketed as horror, it should be noted that this is not your average popcorn splatter film. Sure, it’s violent and disturbing, its 18 rating is appropriate, and I would not recommend it to people with weak nerves or stomachs. But if you’re expecting plain old school horror  entertainment you’re bound to disappointed, as I believe some people in the audience were.

First of all, Mandy takes its time. The first half in particular is slow-paced and will bore viewers looking for a quick fix. Me, I quite like films that don’t rush. Mandy relies heavily on atmosphere and its dreamlike rhythm allows its droning soundtrack, colourful lights and eccentric characters to leave their mark on the viewer.

Secondly, Mandy is weird. After the first encounter between Mandy and Jeremiah events rapidly spin out of control, a narrative development mimicked by the film’s increasingly acid-like visuals. I’ve never used LSD, and if this is what tripping is like I never will, but the second half of the film feels like an extended hallucination for characters and viewers alike. William Burroughs meets David Lynch meets Mark Rothko does not even begin to capture it. I’m writing this almost 24 hours later and my brain still feels like it’s been violently pulled apart and then half-heartedly shoved back into my skull.

I was concerned that the film’s plot would result in a celebration of violence against women. And indeed, it contains violence against women of the most vicious sort. I certainly would not blame people for skipping the film for this reason. But rather than turning gendered violence into a mere plot device, the film portrays it as the ultimate evil. Some unusual forms of behaviour – going after your enemies with a homemade axe, for example – are considered normal in Mandy’s universe, but believing it is a man’s right to own women and treat them as he sees fit is not.

The good thing about watching a film in a cinema is the opportunity to observe audience responses. I was struck, and I will probably delve into this deeper some other time, by a peculiar difference. The film is packed with phallus symbols of the obvious type – chainsaw, anyone? – but while no one batted an eyelid when confronted with one of them, an extended shot of an actual penis caused eruptions of nervous giggling. Why? I’ll surely come back to this once my battered brain has healed.

Perhaps the best way to describe Mandy is to compare it to a dream. Hard to understand, overwhelming and not always logical, but bound to leave a lasting impression. In need of  taster? See for yourself.

Image Pixabay via Pexels

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