Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Careful With That Ax

Nicolas Cage in Mandy (2018)

The day after I saw Mandy (2018, directed by Panos Cosmatos), I posted a knee-jerk reaction on social media to the effect that it was "the movie you might get from a couple of stoner kids after snorting crank off the cover of an old issue of Heavy Metal, which might be interesting if it was even remotely watchable. Unfortunately it's not." Or something like that. I forget the exact wording. I should probably expand on that, because I'm usually not that out of patience with movies. I'm not even usually out of patience with Nick Cage at his most deranged, either--I loved Mom and Dad, which has performances so broad that it's a wonder any of the scenery remained intact, and even stuff like Season of the Witch and Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans. Mandy, by contrast, rubbed me the wrong way. It's a film that conceals a dearth of ideas with suffocating style, which can work sometimes, but which here usually conceals the basic images of its shots.

Mandy is in two halves, though it has multiple chapter stops along the way with titles emblazoned on the screen in type that looks to have escaped from a paperback original horror novel of the 1980s. In the first half of the film, lumberjack Red Miller and his girlfriend, artist Mandy Bloom, are living an idyllic existence in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Along comes hippie cult leader and ex-prog rock singer Jeremiah Sand and his band of followers. Sand spots Mandy on the road, and covets her. Since he is the chosen of god, he conjures three demonic bikers to invade Red and Mandy's home and take them captive. Red, he trusses up with barbed wire and hangs outside. Mandy he drugs and attempts to seduce, using his hypnotic voice and the album he cut in the 1960s. When she sees him naked before her, she laughs. He cannot abide this and hangs her outside in front of her husband and burns her alive. He stabs Red and leaves him to die, but he doesn't. In the second half of the film, Red becomes an avenging angle, forging an axe that looks to have escaped from a Frazetta painting, and embarks upon his revenge tour, tracking down first the demonic bikers--who are hopped up on designer drugs--and then Sand and his band of cultists. Much bloodshed ensues.

Linus Roach in Mandy (2018)

There is only one solitary part of this film that I believed: the scene where Mandy--played by the chameleon, Andrea Riseborough--laughs at Sand's nakedness. This scene encapsulates a principle that almost all women know: men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. That is laid out explicitly and seemingly without much consideration in the center of this movie. The rest of this strikes me as manpain wank, like most movies about a man taking revenge for the death of his lover/family. It's a formula, but rarely executed with as little thought as one finds here. This is a film that's more about the image on screen than it is about its narrative.

The images here are mostly obscured by color filters and dreamy lap dissolves and double exposures and alien landscapes. This is a film that is intensely colored. Its visual sensibility is derived more from Roger Dean album covers and European comics than it is from exploitation films. I keep seeing it compared to the imagery of heavy metal album covers, but that's lazy, given that the film provides a touchstone at the very outset by using King Crimson's "Starless" as its main theme. So prog-rock, and its attendant pretensions. It even includes animated sequences that seem like outtakes from the Heavy Metal movie (with about the same quality of animation, in a style untouched by the Japanese). It only reverts to a naturalistic image a couple of times. First, in the aftermath of its murder sequence, Cage finds a bottle of vodka in his bathroom and proceeds to drink all of it while acting through a range of emotions. Second, when he retrieves "the Reaper" from Bill Duke's Caruthers, who functions as Mr. Exposition, pointing our hero toward his quarry like he's a weapon. "The Reaper" is a crossbow, and Mandy prophesies this to Sand during her drugged seduction when she tells him that all she sees for him is "a reaper approaching." This sequence is clumsy in a film that aspires to some kind of elegance. And for all that, "The Reaper" is mostly surplus to requirements given the big fucking axe the film prefers. So portents and omens without purpose or payoff, but that's this film all over.  There is actually a third instance when this film is unencumbered by color filters, and that's the Cheddar Goblin ad on the television after Cage escapes his bonds, but that seems to exist outside the universe of this film.

Mandy (2018)

In spite of its artier aspirations, exploitation filmmaking is still there under the surface. Certainly, Linus Roach as Jeremiah Sand is channeling perennial exploitation villain Richard Lynch in his portrayal, and any film that includes demonic bikers and a chainsaw duel is playing in the exploitation ballpark. Demonic bikers have a long history in film, and reached their apotheosis in Raising Arizona, which this film doesn't approach in spite of Cage reprising his opposition to them. Cage himself played Ghost Rider twice. So the allusions pile up to no good purpose. The bikers in this film are glimpsed in snippets, in flashes of lightning or in silhouette. Theoretically, this might make them mysterious and terrifying, but they're mostly just incomprehensible. The same might be said of the chainsaw duel. While the end is vividly nasty--you might call it hardcore metal, I guess--the whole thing is brief and filmed in a way that obscures it rather than elucidates it. If you're going to put a chainsaw duel in a movie, you have to up your game because there are other chainsaw duels out there against which you will be measured, and this falls short of the chainsaw duels in Tiger on the Beat and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and even Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (in which Blaster is another variant of a demonic biker). As I say, this film has no new ideas.

If the execution of its action scenes leave a lot to be desired, then the structure of how they're used is even more disappointing. Sand and his cultists are straw villains compared to their biker minions, but the film saves them for last, providing the film with a whimper at the end rather than a bang. Sand is as pathetic a villain as I can remember and Cage's scene with him is sordid and anti-climactic and anti-cathartic. As he drives away under a Roger Dean sky after his revenge is exacted, I would have sat fuming for a few minutes if I hadn't had to pee so badly.

Anyway, I mostly thought Mandy was a bunch of pretentious twaddle and I hated it and it's longer than two hours which made me hate it even more. I dunno, maybe I would have liked it better if the filmmakers had thought to wink at the audience by throwing in Barry Manilow over the end credits, but I don't know that even that would have saved it.

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