A dirty little secret of any kind of criticism is that it is much harder to write a good review of something good than a good review of something bad. On the one hand, books of bad movie reviews are widely read and enjoyed by readers who have never seen the films being reviewed. On the other hand, quotes on book covers are so formulaic that they, themselves, can be the subject of ribbing. This can attest to something about the human spirit that savors mean-spiritedness, but I actually think it’s something like the reverse. When freed from the obligation to show something reverence and respect, you can write anything you want, in any tone – humor, anger, sadness – whereas, shackled by those obligations, the range of responses acceptable becomes accordingly limited.
Mandy, the second film from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, is at once a film especially difficult to review for that reason, while simultaneously laughing its head off at you for treating something like it with reverence. Mandy is not merely fabulous, though fabulous it is, in every way – it is extremely, uncompromisingly the most itself version of itself it can be, which means that it is at once “haunting and lyrical,” “a profound meditation on grief and loss,” and an “instant classic.” But is also a movie where Nic Cage snipes demons off ATVs with crossbows. Ultimately, Mandy’s unwavering devotion to a singular vision that marries a keen intelligence and emotional insight to the pulpiest genre material renders it invincible to criticism. In the end, Mandy is either extremely for you or it is extremely not; I feel bad for you if you’re in the latter camp.
But, fine – that’s not quite enough of a review, so I’ll lay it out there for the folks who might need convincing. Summarizing Mandy’s plot is a bit tricky, not because it it’s complicated or because it’s a film vulnerable to being ruined by spoilers. It’s because summarizing its plot is misleading, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because while it hits the beats of its classic pulp-revenge narrative, it structures it all “wrong,” with what might be considered Act I gobbling a huge share of the runtime. Secondly, because Mandy is very, very much about the how and why of its elements, as opposed to merely the what. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, because it’s not thematically about what its genre is usually about, at all. All of that means that, when I tell you that Mandy is about lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) seeking revenge against a demented drug cult and their demon allies for the horrifying fate they visit on his love, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). It’s at once exactly and nothing like what you think it will be.
Mandy is all about embracing the contradictions; Mandy is proof that horseshoe theory is real. The entire movie, but especially the back half, is at once intensely earnest and yet lovingly crafted from homage and pastiche, but rather than working at odds the dueling ideas complement each other. The “meta” moments augment the visceral delight and vice-versa. This just works way more often than it has any right to, a testament to the perfect conviction and execution. Cage’s performance, which should and will spawn a thousand GIFs, is emblematic of what makes Mandy click so hard. It is, somehow, simultaneously, the ultimate meta-Nic Cage performance while still being totally felt and gut-punching on every level. He will make you laugh, and he will make you cry, and in the film’s final moments, probably both.
But what makes Mandy really hum is that everything works that well. The film’s cinematography is glorious, as is Cosmotos’ continued willingness to just engage every bonkers thing that shouldn’t work that does, including nightmarish drug-induced visions, readings from whacked-out sci-fi paperbacks, and otherworldly animated visions that slowly but surely conquer reality. The score (among the last from Jóhann Jóhannsson) is fabulous, as are all the special effects, which deliriously resist any CGI in a way that makes every moment of action and splatter infinitely more fun than anything in the MCU. In a just world, Linus Roache would get a Supporting Actor nod for his amazingly unhinged performance as cult leader Jeremiah, but even as his and Cage’s performances are guaranteed to suck up attention, the real hero of the film is its namesake, and Riseborough’s performance.
In a genre where women, their lives and their bodies, are generally treated as angelic MacGuffins, Riseborough is given a role that flips that script on its head, giving her complex, literally and metaphorically scarred character a driving role throughout the majority of the film’s runtime, and whose dreams and struggles define the film’s emotions, narratives, and themes. The absence of agency or personality was one of the biggest flaws in Cosmotos’ debut film, Beyond the Black Rainbow, a film that shares a lot with this one, but it didn’t rise to the promise of the talent it displayed. Mandy does everything right that Beyond the Black Rainbow did right, and more. That Mandy is not just a real character, but the film’s true protagonist, is Mandy’s biggest and best surprise, in a film full of nothing but good surprises.