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Mandy (2018): Review

Panos Cosmatos' Mandy (2018) borrows from many films. It opens with a scrolling forest, but the camera soon nods upward, at a colorful planetscape. This reverses the opening shot in Star Wars (1977), when the camera falls from the sky to rest on Tatooine and her moons. Murky and rich, the music sets the tone. It's a tale of good versus evil, of a pastoral scene broken by violence and repaid in kind.

Mandy is a fantasy tale of revenge that forces Cage into a largely mute role. The actor's somewhat constrained delivery assists the narrative versus hijacking it; the story is at once a fairy tale and a Western, with horror themes: an old gunslinger working a menial job must return to a life of violence after his wife is killed. To do so, he must also return to drinking and meeting with old, bellicose friends. His bloody quest is two-fold, the villain tucked away in a tower, guarded by parallel agents who swear fealty to no one and delight in mayhem. They cannot be killed; Cage encounters them, first, only to learn what they are, later. These skirmishes feel parallel to the villain, Jeremiah Sand. The bikers push Cage towards Sand, similar to how Eric Draven is led towards Top Dollar by T-Bird and his pals.

The events onscreen are pastiche, understated (much how George Lucas retooled Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa for a new generation, with Star Wars). I recognized the nods to Mad Max, except the chase is through a black forest, not a desert, and with a Suburban, not a V8. The weapons are a crossbow with two bolts, and an ax straight out of Star Trek, Conan the Barbarian (1981) or Krull (1983). There's even a slow, deliberate forging sequence John Milius might have used, in Conan. What's important is that the story works as a fantasy and a Western and a revenge film, separately and together. Much of this has to do with the visuals, music and dialogue, which exist "as is," unfolding in ways that allow us to sit back and watch. We remain uncertain as to where exactly it's going even if the general idea is more or less straightforward. It feels familiar but fresh—a new combination of old parts that succeeds on multiple levels. The dialogue is both lite and abundant. It unfolds like a conversation, not as exposition.

During his quest, Cage goes from person to person, often meeting these individuals once and once only. They feel like part of the world, one that lives and breathes. We need not know who they are; we need only see what wisdom (or arms) they impart. It is what Bakhtin refers to as the Road, wherein the motif of meeting is employed. On it, Cage meets many different people, but in a larger world the movie can only suggest. Any sense of rapport or animosity is understated. All that matters is the quest. We're simply along for the ride. The villain, Sand, monologues much how Little Bill, Top Dollar or Thulsa Doom do; their dialogue is to be heard in the moment, not pieced into a larger puzzle. It is an act of villainy to be viewed, not a mystery to solve. They are hypnotic, not cryptic.

We learn Sand is ruthless, not only a villain, but transparently so. This same transparency applies to the heroes and side characters. Cage is implaccable: his lover was killed; he'll settle the score any way he can. He largely speaks through action, through facial expression (Cage's strong suit). More often than not, he's covered in blood, his nose rimmed with rings of dusty cocaine. He drinks, he cries; there's little need for him to spell it out. We've seen it, firsthand, and he's often alone. When he's in the company of others, they know who he is. Bill Duke inquiries, but only just (Cage's explanation is one of the movie's funnier moments). Then Cage sets forth, armed to the teeth.

These stories involve terrible loss and resurrection, working in tandem. Cage's darkest moment is fairly early on. Mandy is killed; Cage is strung up with barbed wire, wearing a halo of "thorns" like Jesus except as a gag. Sand even pierces Cage's side with a spear. From the brink, Cage comes back to put the wrong things right. If this sounds familiar, it is. In The Crow, Eric Draven is killed before the movie even starts, his death revealed in flashback; when he revives, he is largely unstoppable... until Top Dollar injures Eric's crow companion ("Lemme give you an impression: 'Caw! Caw! Bang, fuck, I'm dead!'"). In Conan, the hero's mother and family are killed; he is made a slave. Failing to kill Thulsa Doom, he is crucified. After being brought back from the dead, Conan must endure the death of his lover at Thulsa Doom's hand. Continually driven, Conan finally kills his nemesis for good. Bereavement serves to strengthen the hero unto final victory.

The point at which the lover is murdered can vary further still. In Unforgiven, William Munny's wife dies of natural causes, with William standing over her grave during the opening prologue. Recruited for a hit, William is pummeled by Little Bill (not even his target). Later, William returns to kill Bill, but only after the other man kills William's friend. Another hero—Max, from Mad Max—only kills Toe-Cutter and his minions after they kill his wife and child: there is no moment where Max is beaten, himself. He handily bests the Night-Rider, early on; Toe-Cutter and his men die just as easily. In the "sequel," Max's family is already gone. He is fed upon by Lord Humongous, whose army destroys Max' car. Nursed back to health, he survives and, returned to full strength, deals with his enemies in a final, protracted chase sequence. In Mandy's case, there is no stopping Cage once Mandy is killed. And that's the point: he can kill as many of the demon bikers as he wants; they'll laugh and tell him Mandy is "still burning" in hell. How can one defeat someone with violence, if violence and dying are what they love? It's a clever twist. Even if the movie is a simply variation of old parts, it's done well.

Cage's reintegration to violence is gradual. Initially he and Mandy enjoy their pastoral home, announced by sparkling Disney font. Cage is almost gentle. Then, Sand's toady summons the bikers, parallel to Cage's own, inner killer. Driven to avenge his wife, his bloodlust mounts through constant battle. The bikers are less defeated so much as escaped from. Cage careens his Suburban off one, kneeling in the middle of the road. They capture him, relish in seeing the old killer (a biker, like them) regress. Covered in blood, he pounds whiskey and blow to see things through. By fighting actual demons, Cage confronts his own. Sand's cohorts are all but obliterated, bested one by one. Some put up a fight. Some do not. Cage kills them all, insatiable death-dealer that he is.

The variations continue. Sand isn't as scrappy as Top Dollar. The latter would lay traps and fight as dirty as possible; Sand uses the power of voice and little else. Unforgiven featured no seduction; Little Bill was simply overconfident, backed by a crew that outnumbered William many times over. In Conan, Thulsa Doom's host fell at the battle of the mounds; all he had left was his voice. Like Doom, Sand's men are reduced well before. His voice cannot stop Cage from crushing him to ignominious death (wonderful gore effects). Cage leaves, but not before burning the cultist's temple to the ground, as Conan did with Thulsa Doom's. There is no princess to rescue, this time around; the villain is dead, as is Cage's bride. With nothing left to achieve, our hero rides off into the sunset, presumably onto other adventures.

Mandy's genius lies through it playing with an old formula, the visuals allowed to coalesce and speak for themselves. It comes together in new ways that reinforce the qualities needed for each facet to work. It requires nothing beyond itself to operate, living and breathing in ways that echo an endless tradition, itself a stellar entry herein. It involves revenge, magic and sunsets, but injects elements of the occult and Clive Barker the others did not dabble in. Watching it, I felt as I did, when watching Aliens (1986). With largely the same devices, Cameron's tone was utterly different, injecting Rambo and other war-films, while riffing off the Gothic horror Scott perfected, the first time around. Cameron used the same parts to do something similar, albeit with a unique flavor. He payed homage to the past, by which to reinforce his own project. So does Panos Cosmatos. It's not required viewing because these projects contain the same elements past ones did, including nods to older iterations.

I loved this movie. The gore is fabulous, the lighting colorful, the music evocative. The palette is part Synthwave, part Adam Greenberg (with a bit more color). The villain hypnotizes, his cronies do their part ("Fire it up!"). Still, the hero prevails. Reined in, Cage eventually explodes, a volcano that erupts and sleeps and erupts once more, and worse than before.


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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