“For me, film performance is like music.” —Nicolas Cage, 2018 Sundance Film Festival Cheddar Interview
Panos Cosmatos‘ 2018 phantasmagoric horror film Mandy (script by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn) takes place in 1983 with Red Miller (Nicolas Cage), a stoic, seemingly unhappy and aloof lumberjack who lives in a cabin in the wilderness with his lover, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), an avid fiction reader and fantasy artist. The couple’s life, though quiet and detached from the rest of civilization (save for a single television), is a contented one (though not altogether happy, as it is early punctuated by past trauma). The couple’s idyll is shattered when Mandy crosses paths with The Children Of The New Dawn, an erotic, Christian cult. The cult’s leader, Jeremiah Sand, finds himself fascinated with Mandy and remarking that he feels naked without her, entrusts his second-in-command with a strange artifact that summons a seemingly demonic biker gang who bind Red with barbed wire as Mandy is kidnapped by the cult. Mandy rejects Jeremiah’s advances and, for her impudence, he torches her alive in front of her horrified and bleeding lover. Red is left to bleed to death but he survives, escapes his bindings, forges a battle ax and sets off to kill the cultists and their psychotic emissaries.
At first glance the film may appear all style and no-substance (See Rotten Tomatoes), with its straightforward story, ominous humming soundtrack (by Johann Johannsson) and operatic violence. This is not the case. The film is filled with themes, some half-worked, others more prominent and well developed. The most prominent of which is ego and acceptance and the differences between the masculine and the feminine as pertains thereto. It is in this sense, a highly sexed film, by which I do not mean that it is concerned with intercourse (it is not), but rather, that it relies, at the conceptual level, upon the dualities of the sexes; the soft coaxing (Mandy) and vindictive venom (the cult women and the woman biker) of the female, the desire for dominion (Sand) and vengeful violence (Red) of the male.
Jeremiah Sand is, in the beginning of the film, the principal vector for the film’s foray into masculine excess (by “excess” I mean those qualities, good and bad, which exceed the masculine behavioral norms of contemporary society), not in terms of strength, speed or violence (he personifies the upward limits of these attributes not at all), but desire. The cult leader is the embodiment of the dangers of the unfettered male ego; vain, cruel, ruthless, vindictive and lustful, yet fickle. He wishes to bring everything under his control and ownership and claims a right to do so through God’s sanctification of his person. Even still his personal failures as a passionate yet overlooked and derided musician, make the character’s motivations understandable; his vile acts a revenge upon a society that callously rejected him. If the mother in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is the anti-ideal of feminine erothanatropic mania, Jeremiah is her anti-ideal male counterpart.
Throughout the latter half of the film, Sand finds his valorous antithesis in Red, who is, until the loss of the love of his life half-way through the film, the picture of admirable (if unexceptional) male stoicism. Red’s virtues, however, may be overlooked upon first viewing given how subtly they are presented (both through deft acting and direction). At the opening of the film, a ruminating Red, a lumberjack, is seen ending his shift and boarding a helicopter to return him home, whereupon one of his co-workers kindly offers him a beer, he politely declines. Later, he has a vodka-swilling breakdown after witnessing Mandy’s death, which suggests he declined the offer of a drink at the beginning of the film due to a past history of substance abuse. Red is also highly attentive; upon his first scene with Mandy he finds her diligently plying pencil to paper in the construction of a fantastical piece of artwork. He is astounded by her skill and expresses deep interest and later talks at great length with her of their favorite planets. It is only when he turns to revenge that he dispenses with his reserve and even then, one would be hard-pressed to argue that his bloody workings, however extreme, were unjust.
Whilst the protagonist is positioned in stark contrast to the cult leader, this contrast is established through personality attribution, rather than through more fascicle tropes (such as the hero wearing white, the villain black, or the hero being brightly lit, whilst the villain lurks in shadow). Where Red is reserved (generally, even in revenge, with a few, momentary exceptions), Jeremiah is erratic and prone to fits of emotion. Where Red is attentive and romantic to his lover, Jeremiah has no lovers, but only concubines (who themselves are merely seeking acceptance, not through societal channels, but through him alone). Where Red is martially capable and technically apt, Jeremiah is not, relying instead upon psychedelic concoctions made by The Chemist, and esoteric religious fervor.
Where the protagonist is willing to sacrifice himself to achieve justice, the antagonist is, despite all his bluster, a coward who begs pathetically for his life when the reaper’s scythe hangs ominously over his head. The film, thematically, resembles The Midnight Meat Train. Both films follow two men who exceed the boundaries of civilization in a attempt to destroy the other and, as a consequence, descend into a primal abyss which does not strip, but rather reveals, their true humanity.