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There are some films that offer us fantasies whose close correlation with our own emotional life allows them to take on an urgency that we, as an audience, are often ill prepared for. Andrzej Żuławski immediately comes to mind as a definite master of this kind of filmmaking. His films, no matter how distant their narrative became in terms of resembling the “realism” peddled by Hollywood, were so completely adept at orchestrating all sorts of emotional upheaval and trauma that they are often better remembered for the mood or atmosphere that they evoke in the viewer rather than for anything else. This kind of film was rare in Żuławski’s lifetime and even rarer now, so when a film like this appears it demands to be seen.

Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018) evokes a number of traumas, physical and emotional, that center within a complex of masculine anxiety. The shifting roles of different characters and their symbolism in the film places Mandy in the same tradition as Alejandro Jodorowsky. But despite the title of the film, Cosmatos’ concerns are not for Mandy the character so much as for the ramifications of her actions, her absence and her general role within the world of the film where she serves as a centralized axis around which all the ideas within the film orbit. Cosmatos treats Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) as a kind of “every woman” within the social structure of the hetero normative 1980s. She represents in turns lover, friend, sexual object, and phantom. Each role, also in turns, assumes a subtle nuance that is dictated by the shifting perspectives of her dominant male counterparts.

Throughout all of Mandy’s varying iterations she remains tied to her husband Red (Nicolas Cage). This equation of “wife and lover”, “wife and friend”, etc. is achieved primarily by giving Mandy a majority of the dialogue and screen time of the two in the first half of the film. Couple that with the fact that Mandy is an artist and one can easily infer that, within the marital unit of Mandy and Red, she is the “communicator”.

Mandy, within the general narrative, transcends communication on a strictly character to character level. Cosmatos, in addition to applying various archetypal feminine identities to Mandy, also applies various modes of reflexivity through the character. In short, Mandy is a conduit. Her illustrations foreshadow the biker gang, her lettering the films titles, her taste in music (evidenced by band t-shirts) the soundtrack, etc. This inference is further indicated by the rhyming sequences that bookend her murder at the hands of The Children Of The New Dawn. The scene where she laughs in hysterics at Jeremiah (Linus Roache) slowly transitions from said laughter to a slow motion dirge of despair. Likewise, Red transitions from cries of despair after Mandy’s murder to a kind of manic laughter. In the wake of Mandy’s violent demise, Red is left to communicate alone without his partner. Needless to say that Red’s expressions of grief and anger are absurdly violent and hyper masculine in comic proportions.

Red’s hyper masculinity, while clearly a compensation for his wife’s absence, is a stark contrast to the predatory sexuality of the biker gang and the passive masculinity of Jeremiah. Consider the different kinds of phallic imagery associated with each party. Red has a crossbow and an axe, the bikers are adorned in fantastic kink wear complete with a Bowie knife penis, and Jeremiah, whose penis is literally flacid when seen, relies on his henchmen to provide him with female counterparts. In this network Cosmatos positions his hero, Nicolas Cage’s Red, as the middle ground between the extremes of the two masculine antagonists. In many respects it is as if the narrative itself were representative of a single masculine identity in chaos without its feminine components .

The threat to masculinity, though certainly centered around the different roles Mandy plays, also comes in the form of a kind of xenophobia. Jeremiah and his Children Of The New Dawn conform to the threat proposed by the Manson murders; a fear of cults, of home invasion, and their various ramifications. Couple this anxiety with the other worldly and almost mutant quality of the LSD guzzleing biker gang and one is presented with a very clear portrait of a conservative male identity under siege. This element of the film derives more from the genre of exploitation and grindhouse movies of the 1970s than from the innovations to these narrative elements that Cosmatos provides. Consider that grindhouse films originated and continue to resurface during times of national upheaval. The genre itself serves as a kind of cathartic fantasy that is in opposition to the incredibly specific texts and subtexts of Cosmatos’ film. Cosmatos uses the grindhouse genre simply as a means of examining male identity in relation to female identity within a marriage in the most fantastic mode available. However, the limitations of the genre clearly add to any textual reading, coloring the paranoia and anger exhibited by the protagonist Red.

As was the case with Andrzej Żuławski, Cosmatos is able to transcend the formula of the genre by employing some subtle tactics. In order to keep Mandy at the heart of the film and its inquiries into masculine frailties Cosmatos seems to have been directly influenced by filmmakers like Andrzej Żuławski or Abel Ferrera in terms of his narrative pacing and editing. Cosmatos prioritizes space and location as much as Żuławski, and he will take the time required to establish a coherent sense of atmosphere. Cosmatos also tends to enter and leave scenes either long before or long after the action has subsided, a tactic Żuławski uses to great effect in Possession (1981). There is also the matter of detail in terms of set dressing and costuming that help to imbue the central characters of the film (Red and Mandy) with a sense that their lives didn’t just begin with the film. One can see this specificity in Mandy’s t-shirts and the clutter around the central couple’s house (a strategy more akin to Ferrara’s sensibilities than to Żuławski’s).

Mandy is a film that falls within that rare category of exploitation fare where the film in question manages to equal or even surpass the “art house” releases of its moment. Consider that the images alone offered by Cosmatos and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb are amongst the most beautiful that can be seen all year. In addition, on a strictly visual front, Hubert Pouille’s production design is equal to any of Roy Walker’s best works. And, of course, casting Nicolas Cage could have been a risk, at least as far as critics are concerned, since most have written off the actor as a sort of Steven Seagal for millennials. But Cage inhabits his character Red Miller with such a quiet intensity for so much of the film that his psychotic break down (and the ensuing “freak out”) are very much earned, and places his performance as his best since David Gordon Green’s Joe (2013).

This piece was first published in the fall of 2018.