Score: 5 out of 5
Mandy starts out as anything but the film you're expecting based on its plot description, poster, trailer, and leading man... and by the end, it winds up as exactly the film you were expecting. It's a balls-tripping arthouse action-horror movie inspired by equal parts dark epic fantasy and heavy metal -- and I'm not talking about modern metal, no, I mean old-school '70s King Crimson (who wrote and composed the opening song for the soundtrack) and Black Sabbath, driven by wailing guitars and an aura of dread. It's a movie where Nicolas Cage, delivering a performance that is both one of the best of his career and about what you'd expect from him in a movie like this, is arguably the least batshit insane thing about it. I've seen other critics admit that they got high off their ass before watching this, and said that marijuana or psychedelic drugs enhances the experience; I didn't, and I found that I didn't need to anyway, because this movie is practically a drug in and of itself. An ax-wielding, utterly mad drug that takes a simple plot and turns it into a fantasy adventure through backwoods Americana, one that feels as though Neil Gaiman and Rob Zombie collaborated on an adaptation of Conan the Barbarian, or if Guillermo del Toro dropped acid while listening to metal. This is, without a doubt, one of the most unforgettable movies of 2018.
The basic setup is that Red Miller is a lumberjack who lives with his girlfriend, an artist named Mandy Bloom, in the Shadow Mountains in 1983. That year is important, because this film is utterly marinated in a particular vision of the '80s, one that you don't normally see in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or on Stranger Things. This is where the castoff dregs and hand-me-downs of the '60s and '70s all gathered, long past their sell-by date, in the form of both Red himself (implied later in the film to have a dark past) and the Children of the New Dawn, a hippie cult led by a failed musician named Jeremiah Sand. Jeremiah sees Mandy, gets entranced by her beauty, and decides to have her kidnapped and brainwashed into a follower of his, all while Red is tied up and forced to watch. When Red breaks free and escapes, he sets out on a glorious rampage of vengeance against Jeremiah and his cultists for what they did to him and Mandy, grabbing his crossbow (left in the care of his old friend Caruthers) and forging a battle-ax in order to take them on.
The bizarro-world ideas don't just come from the style of the film, but are present in the actual meat of the story, most notably with the Black Skulls, a gang of bikers who work with the Children of the New Dawn and serve as minions for Red to overcome. They look like the Cenobites from the Hellraiser movies and are implied to not be quite human anymore, not after taking a bad batch of LSD that turned them into pain-worshiping freaks. The cult leader Jeremiah takes the imagery of an aging hippie and warps it into something resembling the evil magician villain out of a sword-and-sorcery flick, using psychedelic drugs, wasp venom, and his terrible music as his potions and spells; in practice, he makes for an utterly loathsome, sociopathic monster, somebody who thinks that his god has granted him the right to take whatever he wants in the interests of his own pleasure, all conveyed to near-perfection by Linus Roache. Opposing him is Red, framed as a figure not unlike Conan the Barbarian as he sets out to rescue his lover. Knowing that Nicolas Cage plays Red, you'd expect some quality freak-outs where he rages like a berserker at his foes, but what you won't expect is the genuinely nuanced performance he also gives, combining hyper-masculinity with deep pain and anger over what he goes through. When he looks off into the distance at the end, it is a thousand-yard stare of shock and horror, and you feel every bit of what eventually brings him to that point. This is a film that earns its Cage moments; when he starts hysterically sobbing midway through the film, you're not laughing at him. Andrea Riseborough's performance as the titular Mandy gets less screen time, but she too proves far more interesting than the damsel in distress that a lesser version of this movie might have turned her into. One scene, where she laughs at and embarrasses Jeremiah in front of his followers right when he thought he had broken her, is not only hilarious, but one of the most badass moments in a movie filled with them.
And speaking of badass, while I have heavily discussed this film's '70s metal inspirations, it's also metal in the more modern sense of injecting viewers with a near-lethal dose of testosterone. This is a film that doesn't display the title card until 75 minutes in, at the start of the third act, as if to say that this is what it was building up to the entire time -- and there are still 45 minutes left on the clock from there. Those 45 minutes are virtually nonstop action and bloodshed as we see Nicolas Cage, now in full-on Cage mode, unleashing pure terror and violence upon every cultist in front of him, stalking them like Rambo before moving in for a series of exceptionally bloody kills. Blood sprays everywhere, the film shot as much like a splatter flick as it is like an action movie as Red uses his crossbow, his ax, and most memorably (of course) a chainsaw to spill the blood of the guilty all over the place, the kills all either shown in vivid detail or leaving viewers with the disgusting aftermath. This is not a movie for the faint-hearted -- it leaves a trail of bodies and viscera in its wake, and makes you laugh and scream out in awe every time it does so.
The Bottom Line
Whether as a coherent narrative or a mood piece designed to be played at metal concerts, Mandy is an exceptional film. Its plot may be simple, but the layers beneath it are not, and make this an eminently watchable experience. In a way, it's the movie that The Lords of Salem tried to be, a combination of dirtbag Americana with a mythic horror/fantasy adventure that, once you get down with its weirdness, never stops kicking your ass.