Mandy (2018)

2019 #34
Panos Cosmatos | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Belgium / English | 18

Mandy

Words feel inadequate to describe Mandy, the sophomore feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, the son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone — films which are not helpful comparisons here, I hasten to add. You could call Mandy an action movie, of a sort, but it’s unlike either of those. It’s not like a whole lot else, really.

Let’s start with the plot. I’m not sure Cosmatos did, but we will. Set in the mid ’80s, it centres around Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who live happily in the back of beyond somewhere in the United States. One day a group of Christian cultists happen to drive past Mandy, and their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), takes a shine to her. With the aid of a demonic biker gang, Sand and co accost Red and Mandy for some nefarious cult-ish purpose. Naturally it does not end well, sending Red on a nightmarishly surreal journey of revenge.

I said Mandy could be considered an action movie, which is true: Red’s revenge naturally leads to some violence, which in this case often come at the end of fights. But if you come just for the action you’re liable to leave unsatisfied, because Cosmatos definitely makes you wait for it. Some of it does satisfy on a visceral, B-movie level (there’s a showdown in a quarry I shan’t spoil by detailing), but its purpose is not to revel in combat.

Nic Cage gripping his huge weapon

Rather, it is very much a horror movie. Not in terms of the obvious connotations of the genre — there’s no supernaturally-powered serial killer, no vampires or werewolves, no jump scares — but in the unnerving atmosphere the film sets out to create. This is what I meant when I said I’m not sure Cosmatos started with the plot: there’s a definite story here, and characters and emotional arcs within that too, but the primary goal seems to be the mood that’s generated and the feelings that instills in the viewer. It’s possible Cosmatos may have bigger ideas on his mind beyond that — some reviewers seem obsessed with the notion that the film wants to explore philosophical concepts but doesn’t do it very well. Perhaps they’re right. I didn’t see it that way, however, taking the whole affair as simply an inescapable dive into a fever dream nightmare experience, where the aesthetics and the sensations they create are the point.

Certainly, a good many elements are on board with this twisted perspective. The performances are certainly in the right space, with Nic Cage going full Nic Cage as he travels deeper into the nightmare, the impact of his barminess emphasised by him being fairly normal at the start. As the cult-leading big bad, Roache steps up to the plate of trying to equal Cage’s insanity, and I’d say he gets there — an impressive feat. Around them, Cosmatos lets thing unfurl at a leisurely, dreamlike pace. Some will say it’s too slow and succumb to boredom, but I think it’s very deliberate — though I will certainly allow that it does go too far in this regard at some points.

Crazy cultists, crazy colours

Further to that, he blends in a lot of surreal and fantasy-inspired imagery and visual flourishes, with Benjamin Loeb’s photography often pushing into extremes of colour (lots and lots of red), lens flare (so much more effectively than anything J.J. Abrams has ever been responsible for), and a deliberately-created haziness that, once again, the best descriptor for is “dreamlike”. That said, the shot-on-film, pushed-to-extreme aesthetic also helps evoke low-budget ’80s fantasy/horror films, in a kind of race-memory way — I couldn’t give you specific examples of what films I feel its emulating, but there’s something about the overall style that gives that vibe. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score also hits those same beats, in terms of both the era recreated and the film’s own unsettled atmosphere.

Mandy is today’s premiere on Sky Cinema, which feels like an ill fit to me. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I always feel like Sky Cinema (and by extension its viewer base) is much more focused around mainstream blockbuster kind of movies, especially for a Saturday premiere. Instead, it feels like Mandy should be making its TV debut on Film4 at about 11pm in the middle of the week (I won’t be surprised if that’s where it ends up getting its first network TV airing). I can see some tuning in expecting a violent revenge action-thriller and giving up after a few minutes of its particular weirdness. For those on its wavelength, however, it’s an experience (and it’s definitely an experience) that’s thrilling in very a different way.

5 out of 5

Mandy is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Blue Ruin (2013)

2015 #171
Jeremy Saulnier | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

This neo-noir revenge drama with a twist has received such acclaim from critics and bloggers alike that it’s practically set up to fail.

Its guiding principle is neat: a semi-comedic version of what would actually happen if an Ordinary Joe tried to enact violent vengeance on murderous criminals. So the action is less Taken and more that fight from Bridget Jones, but with guns and a real-world aesthetic.

Frankly, I admired rather than enjoyed it. It’s a one-hit premise that doesn’t scratch the same itch as a ‘proper’ revenge actioner, nor fulfil the more rewarding aspects of a ‘proper’ drama.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Death Wish (1974)

2010 #29
Michael Winner | 93 mins | TV | 18 / R

Apparently, the recent Michael Caine-starring Harry Brown is a Death Wish for modern times. I’ve not seen Harry Brown yet (Michael Caine killing chavs? Why haven’t I seen this yet), but — as you’ve probably guessed from which review you’re reading — I have seen its spiritual predecessor.

The Death Wish series, as it would later become, seems to be remembered with a certain degree of contempt these days (despite an expressed love for Death Wish 3 from Edgar Wright & co), and I suspect that may be due to the sequels. Not that this first film is a masterpiece or something, but it has plus points.

The characters are surprisingly believable for a start, with serious effort put into their motivation and progression. One expects a shallowness from the genre, plot and director — that the hero’s wife would be killed and daughter raped, and the next day he’s on the street killing scum, building to a climax where he finally gets the gang who committed the original crime — but it’s not so. Months pass before Charles Bronson’s unlucky architect, Paul, grabs his gun and hits the streets, and even then it’s not like he’s slaughtering foes left, right and centre every night.

Indeed, realism permeates: Paul’s encounters aren’t all easily won; he gets injured; his crimes create a media storm, on which public opinion is divided; he never conveniently come across the attackers of his wife and kids — after the crime, they’re never seen again; and so on. There are still unrealistic bits, certainly, but by employing enough believability and leaving aside certain rules of the revenge thriller — for one thing, he never actually gets revenge — Death Wish manages to rise a little above the “heroic vigilante” sub-genre.

The strongest element is probably Wendell Mayes’ script, because it constructs all this. Weakest is Michael Winner’s direction — some of it’s fine, the occasional shot even good, but largely it’s pedestrian and sometimes mediocre. That said, Winner has become such an unlikeable public figure that it’s somewhat difficult to gauge how much of this is bad direction and how much bias. Still, it’s not the kind of work to make one think, “he’s an idiot, but he knows how to do his job”.

As noted, I hear the sequels get increasingly ridiculous, which I can well believe: as a standalone film, Death Wish has strength in a certain degree of realism; imagining a franchise spun off from it, however, it’s easy to see how it would quickly become diluted and lose the power such veracity gives. One wonders, though, if a well-chosen director might produce an even better remake…

3 out of 5