It feels like ages ago when Panos Cosmatos released his first film. I had already made peace with the fact that he was poised to become one of those directors with one outstanding film, never to be heard of again. But alas, last year news of Cosmatos' new film surfaced and hype has been building steadily ever since. I finally got to watch his second feature and while a little unsteady and inconsistent in places, there is more than enough ingenuity present here for me to join in with the hype. Mandy is not a perfect film, but it is one that deserves to be experienced first-hand.
It's been a bit of a frustrating wait though, with distribution being handled extremely poorly. For all the hype that I've been subjected to, the film has been completely unavailable to me for the biggest part of the year. It's almost unthinkable we're still facing these age old distribution failures, especially for a film this hyped up, but by the time I was finally able to watch it I was already somewhat fed up with it. Hype can go bad after a while and this film clearly suffered from it. Luckily Cosmatos is enough of a director to overcome it, but it's an unfair disadvantage a film like this could do without.
Like Cosmatos' previous film, Mandy is part absolute masterpiece and part uneven genre effort. Beyond the Black Rainbow had a clear and sudden division between both parts, Mandy on the other hand spreads it around more evenly. It means you'll be facing constant reminders of how this film could have been even better, at the same time it also means the ending as a whole isn't such a big letdown. I'm not a big fan of the dedicated but well passé 80s vibe on display here (never have been though), but whenever Cosmatos opens his can of tricks the film shifts into overdrive and magic happens.
The story is pretty basic, so don't expect too much from it. An obscure cult, together with a gang of drugged-up bikers, is wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. When the cult leader spots a woman (the titular Mandy) he orders his disciples to capture her. The capture doesn't go as planned and Mandy ends up dead. Her husband (Red) survives the assault, though not without a couple of mental dents. Needless to say he's out for revenge. He gears up and sets out to track down the cult, meaning to pick them off one by one.
The film is somewhat of an ode to 80s cinema, so it's not too surprising that Cosmatos opts for a grainier, fuzzier look. While he is able to offset the effect with outrageous color filters, mean camera work and some very slick editing, not all scenes are equally expressive and the more functional scenes and filler shots often look a bit drab, ugly even. People who dig that typical grungy 80s look won't care, but I appreciate cleaner and slicker visuals. While the impressive moments clearly outrank the dire ones, the difference in quality is rather big and it does feel like a missed opportunity.
The soundtrack is similarly frustrating. The score itself is pretty immersive, impressive and applied with clear intent, but it's also a bit boring and expected. Loud, overwhelming drones and synths are used for maximum effect, but you've heard it all before really. For a film this distinctive it would've been nice if the score had tried a little harder to be more unique and distinguished. Now it feels a bit too "been there, done that", which isn't quite in line with the rest of the film. It's still a million times better than your average film score, but there's still quite a lot of room for improvement.
The cast is decent enough, with one obvious stand-out. Nicholas Cage never really went away, but he did go through an elongated period of questionable choices. That period seems to lie in the past now, with films like Mom & Dad, Mandy and Sono's upcoming Prisoners of the Ghostland brightening up his recent resume. His performance here is vintage Cage, an utterly and completely over the top role only he is able to pull off. The rest of the cast is completely eclipsed by him, but for a film like Mandy that's hardly an issue.
If I sound a little harsh, it's because there are moments of pure, unadulterated 5* excellence here. Just like Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos is very close to making a top-rated film, but some very deliberate yet puzzling choices keep him from getting there. In Mandy's case, it could really do without all the 80s pandering. There's really no explicit reason why the film should go in that direction and we've already been beaten to death with 80s tributes the past few years. It's just a shame to see a film get so close and not quite make it all the way, especially because this is the second time in a row for Cosmatos.
That said, there is so much to love here. After the credits start rolling, it's mostly the good things that linger and there's a fairly large selection of scenes that is just pure genius. Mandy is a visually overpowering, gritty and gory revenge slaughterfest, fronted by one of cinema's boldest mad man actors. Cosmatos proves his first film wasn't just a fluke and with all the positive hype surrounding this one, I'm sure his third might take less than 6 years to make. Mandy is a must-see film, especially for people who have a soft spot horror and experimental cinema, just be prepared for a little unevenness.