As the man who will rip the couple apart, Roache’s Sand also feels differentiated from a mass of violent maniacs. The film sees him clearly as a fundamentally weak individual with no qualities other than the willingness to be brutal, a distillation of maleness into nothing but will. A has-been glam rocker, Sand likely fled to the wilderness out of barely-concealed shame and locked himself into a druggy cycle of self-aggrandizement with his tiny handful of fans. Caught in his clutches, the perceptive Mandy breaks him down in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a captive female react to her male jailer. The scene of her doing so reverberates back into cinematic history and depuffs every villain who would dare to frame themselves as a charismatic eccentric, while also humiliating the writers who would create tropes like them. Who would have thought a Nicolas Cage horror vehicle could so embody a famous Margaret Atwood quote?
As its first act closes and the rest of the film turns towards chaos, Cosmatos takes the reasonably grounded depictions of marriage and fragile masculinity that he’s thus far presented and adds a healthy dose of LSD to the characters and the visuals. What was a depiction of serenity becomes one of insanity and extremity, kicked off by a furious, screaming, underwear-clad Red downing a bottle of vodka in a static shot as he processes recent events. Sand and his more bloodthirsty goons subsist on LSD, and as Red descends into their world, he treats the drug as a skeleton key that will take him to their hideouts. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb bathes the frame in red while editor Brett Bachman splices together cuts so quick that they turn the film into a strobe light, making it as disorienting for the viewer as it is for Red. Buffeting the viewer along is Johann Johannsson’s synth score, an eerie, droning, otherworldly symphony that communicates an Edenic paradise between Red and Mandy before accompanying Red on a trip to hell with crashing percussion and demonic horns. Johannsson died before the release of Mandy, but his distinctive work here will continue on as one of the most evocative and singular scores of recent cinema.
As idiosyncratic as Mandy is, it’s not like it couldn’t have used some pruning. It’s the execution of this particular story that makes the film memorable, and when the film isn’t putting its own twist on certain expected story beats like it is on others, the rote aspect of the story becomes especially apparent. Red has to stock up for his mission, and he does so from Bill Duke’s wholly extraneous character, a backwoods font of exposition on Sand’s cult that stops the film dead in its tracks. The script also contains naked plays for humor that aren’t necessary when the gonzo nature of Mandy already provides laughs. Other interludes are simply weird for the sake of weird and elongate a film that needs to move as quickly as possible once Red is unleashed. There’s a cut of Mandy somewhere that roars to the finish after its justifiably and appreciably languid beginning. The version that exists zig-zags where a straight line would’ve been more beneficial.
Spectacle-driven blockbusters are frequently held up as the gold standard for testing out one’s home theater system, but visually and aurally, Mandy puts most 9-figure productions to shame. Between Johannsson’s score and Cosmatos’ delirious vision, this is the real test. Mandy doesn’t quite belong to the art-house horror genre as it’s too trippy and sensual to play nicely with metaphors about grief or ruminations on 17th century colonial life, but it is surely worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as films like Hereditary and Raw. B+