When I was in college I saw Blade Runner for the first time. I didn’t love it, but I pretended I did in an effort to impress my fellow freshmen with my supposed intellectual prowess. Thus began my Communications and Media major and my ardent exploration of films, which soon whisked me into the wondrous worlds of David Fincher, Ridley Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón, David Cronenberg, and Stanley Kubrick. In those days my primary interest was in seeking out films with aesthetic merit in order to analyze them thematically, decipher their symbolism, and interpret universal meaning.
In short, I wanted to be a snooty film critic.
After my B.A. I switched gears and attended screenwriting school, which is kind of like Hogwarts in that only those with special abilities can see it but nothing you learn has any real-world application. Under the rigorous tutelage of a troupe of elderly Jewish comedians, my love for analyzing films intensified, but my core focus shifted. As my desire to become a writer took shape and my understanding of Story elements formed, I became less interested in evaluating films like a scholar and more interested in reading them like a writer.
Simply put, I stopped asking “What does it mean?” and started asking “Does this work effectively?”
Don’t get me wrong, I love weirdness and even surrealism in films (I’ve even grown to appreciate the first Blade Runner), but those who have been following my Effective Protagonists series know that above all else I’m a stickler for Character and structure.
Mandy is not a film that conforms to traditional narrative structure – case in point, we don’t get the title card until the hour and fifteen-minute mark. What falls on either side of the title card could belong to two completely different films – one a crawling, ethereal euro-lightshow and the other a nightmarish grindhouse splatterfest.
The question is, do they work effectively?
Be forewarned – spoilers abound in plenteousness.
MEET MANDY – PRETTY IN A PINK ATMOSPHERE
Mandy stars Nicolas Cage as a tormented lumberjack in some rural, fictionalized corner of the U.S. where things like civilization and law enforcement apparently don’t exist, having long ago been replaced by fog machines and neon pink floodlights. Cage’s titular girlfriend, Mandy, is the light of his world and the love of his life.
Their relationship is immediately intriguing. The Nicolas Cage on this side of the title card is a man of few words – he’s withdrawn and emotionally remote, struggling even to articulate his interest in Mandy’s passions. While she fusses over her latest painting or waxes on about her favourite planets, he makes pop culture-laden knock knock jokes or quips that Galactus of Marvel Comics likes to eat planets. Even so, he’s enamored with her, often gazing upon her silently from afar with enough smoldering intensity to heat Greenland. Whatever it is in his past that torments him, he’s clearly found solace in her presence.
Mandy herself is not your atypical movie-girlfriend character. In fact, one might say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She is shy, introspective, and deeply damaged. Her hobbies are geeky and her fashion sense stopped developing after that Black Sabbath concert she attended in ninth grade. She reads third-tier fantasy novels and maintains a portfolio of the sort of nerdy artwork that would dominate the front page of DeviantArt.
They’re an odd couple, Billy and Mandy—I mean, Cage and Mandy, opposite in so many ways and yet strangely suited for one another. Both have had their fair share of grim adventures – early in the film Mandy recounts a singularly traumatic experience from childhood, while Cage is implied to be a recovering alcoholic with demons of his own. This makes the tenderness they share in these opening scenes all the sweeter. Honestly, the first third of this film reminded me uncannily of X-Men Origins: Wolverine – both Cage and Wolverine are employed in the logging industry, both live in quiet seclusion off the grid, both have found solace in the arms of a woman who speaks dreamily about the cosmos, and both have their whimsical lifestyle ripped brutally away from them by monsters.
As another insight into my past, I watched X-Men Origins: Wolverine on opening night in the third row of a packed theater surrounding by friends I can’t recall the names of with a jumbo soda pop pressed against unkissed lips. I recently watched Mandy on my laptop alone in my meticulous and orderly den with a bottle of eighteen-year-old Scotch perched in my lap.
Oh, how the mighty have risen.
Anyway, Cage and Mandy’s idyllic existence shatters when Mandy catches the eye of the pseudo-messianic cult leader Jeremiah, who roves around in a hippie van hoping to impress chicks with his prog rock album and peddling the same potent LSD concoction that the director of photography must mix into his breakfast smoothies. Here things get trippy – deciding he simply must have Mandy (no doubt having bonded with her subconsciously through their mutual love of Black Sabbath), Jeremiah orders his disciples to summon a demonic leather-clad cannibalistic biker gang by way of a magical igneous conch from the underworld.
Still with me? Good – because after all that they just break into Nicolas Cage’s house and kidnap her. I don’t know about you, but when I summon a demonic leather-clad cannibalistic biker gang by way of a magical igneous conch from the underworld, I at least task them with doing something I couldn’t otherwise just do myself.
Like mow the lawn, which I can’t do on account of my severe grass allergy.
Mandy rebuffs Jeremiah’s Weinsteinian advances and scoffs at his prog rock album, to which he retaliates by lighting her on fire in front of her adoring beau. Nicolas Cage then crosses the threshold – or rather, Juggernaut-charges through the title card – and embarks on an insanity-fueled quest for revenge, transforming into the man of numerous incomprehensible words we all know and love.
Here the film’s tempo abruptly shifts, amping up from languid, dreamlike rhythms to more visceral, frenzied tones. First, Cage has his contractually-obligated freak-out – which is actually one of the finest scenes in the film. Then, he picks up a crossbow from Mac, who miraculously survived his head shot in the first Predator and retired to a woodland trailer. From there he forges an honest-to-Kahless Bat’leth with montage-speed and efficiency. Finally, he stalks the demonic bikers, snorts coke off a shard of glass, and tastes some LSD, at which point reality must be taken with a grain of salt. He brutally dispatches the members of Jeremiah’s flock. He has a telepathic conversation with a drug cook who owns a pet tiger. He engages in a chainsaw fight. He completely loses his mind.
Really, I’m half-convinced this is just the true-to-life story of how a young man named Nicolas Kim Coppola became internationally-renowned actor-man Nicolas Cage.
Think about it.
THE MESSAGE IN THE MADNESS
Mandy is a sensory experience, not unlike dropping acid at a rave or looking right at the sun through a pink kaleidoscope for two hours while lasers seer your skin, only for you to realize later that you hallucinated the entire thing. Visually this is mesmerizing – a bit monochromatic, but mesmerizing nonetheless. Some critics and reviewers have been digging deep into Mandy’s subtext and extrapolating on its religious themes and astrological symbolism, but by my reckoning it is the visuals that carry all the thematic heft. The cinematography and colour filtration and cross-fades and dreamlike movements guide Mandy’s flow and mood, with the first hour feeling like a soft lullaby and the back hour feeling like you’ve been headbutted by Megadeath. Its interpretive content lies almost exclusively within its imagery – in its picturesque framing and its moody transitions and its endless cascade of pinks and blues, which is sure to entrance some viewers while compelling others to claw manically for their Apple remotes.
Seeing the character Mandy so innocent and doe-like through such garish lenses impresses a feeling that is simultaneously soothing and haunting, which is how the first thirty minutes are able to pass relatively free of action without the film ever feeling its length. This isn’t something you sit down and watch so much as you allow to envelope you. To truly capitalize on your Mandy experience you must release yourself willingly into its current and allow it to carry you gently downstream, over some graceful swells, around some tumultuous bends, and finally over a waterfall to your presumed death.
Which is all well and good if you like water, especially water that’s dyed neon pink. However, if we strip away the visuals and artistry and psychedelic imagery and Cheddar Goblin ad plugs we’re left with a purely reactionary plot punctuated by a mere two action beats – 1) Nicolas Cage’s girlfriend is murdered by Jesus freaks, and 2) he retaliates by killing them.
This is one of the problems some reviewers have had with Mandy, that being its sparse plotting. Very little happens narratively outside the realm of expectation, including the very death of Mandy, which is given away by the fact that this film is marketed as a revenge tale and is titled after her. That being said, I should note that Mandy showcases possibly the finest Nicolas Cage freak-out in a film to date, which is no small feat. It’s an excellent bit of acting for Cage that’s as anguishing to witness as it is earned, considering he just watched his girlfriend get torched.
Now, revenge tales are generally straightforward – John Wick being a prime example. When Russian mobsters assault the recently-bereaved John Wick, kill his dog, and steal his car, he lays waste to their entire syndicate in one night. The difference between John Wick and Mandy is that John Wick comes full circle as a character, as evidenced when he adopts another puppy after beating the final boss to symbolize his continued emotional healing. Nicolas Cage, on the other hand, only loses his mind after vanquishing Jeremiah and descends into both a literal and psychological hellscape. If you want to have your protagonist check his sanity with the valet and drive off into an inferno with a rictus grin piercing through the blood caking his face, by all means – but something more needs to happen plot-wise for it to resonate with us.
In my brief tenure as your friendly neighborhood Snooty Film Critic, I’ve been fairly dismissive of films that emphasize themes over narrative. That being said, I believe that thematic analysis has its place, so long as the story at hand takes precedence. Some of my favourite films could be called Avant-garde or experimental or even an acquired taste. Mad Mad: Fury Road, for instance, is just a single, highly stylistic, spectacle-driven chase scene, but the reason it works is because its characters are fully-realized with clear arcs. Imperator Furiosa finds redemption, Nux escapes the influence of a deranged warlord, and Max himself rediscovers his humanity. All the wasteland wackiness is just the icing on the cake of a story that works on a fundamentally human level. Furthermore, my favourite Cronenberg film is Videodrome (and not just because I was a Communications and Media major who spent three years studying Marshall McLuhan). In true Cronenberg fashion, Videodrome is surreal, dreamlike, and frankly disgusting at times. However, James Woods still evolves (possibly literally) across a journey that has been equated by scholars more astute than myself to The Manchurian Candidate. Moreover, Blade Runner: 2049 blends the best of both the artistic and narrative approaches, using its grandiose visuals in service to a very human, extremely intimate story. Finally, if we look at my beloved 2001: A Space Odyssey… okay, this one is fairly abstract. Even I can’t figure out what the hell was going on with the final vortex sequence – and I suspect Kubrick didn’t know either.
When in doubt, just throw colour at the screen and call it art.
My point is, these films (sans Odyssey) have Character-centric stories layered beneath their aesthetics that make them compelling to watch. Mandy, however, relies mostly on its visuals and cinematography to convey meaning and isn’t that interested in appealing to traditional filmgoers. It aspires to be more than just a film — it aspires to be cinema. This will certainly appeal to more scholarly viewers – notably David Lynch fans or those who somehow think that Alejandro Jodorowsky is talented – but those who don’t care for artistic interpretation may be left scratching their heads or even booking appointments with their optometrists.
Like the first Blade Runner, I appreciate Mandy for what it is and I even laud Panos Cosmatos’ direction, but it just wasn’t my kind of film. I don’t regret the experience and certainly don’t dislike it – I just would have preferred a little more John Wickedness in its composition to bring it up onto the Fury Road. Interpret that, film scholars.
Before I close, there are two other snippets besides the riveting freak-out scene that stand out to me as entertaining, such as the Cheddar Goblin ad and the epic chainsaw fight, because the former is the sort of biting commercial satire that evokes the spirit of Paul Verhoevan and the latter is a chainsaw fight. The rest I leave in the capable hands of freshmen film students with midterms to pass.