“All the suffering, all the sorrow, all the thirst and hunger, the loss and murder and blood had led him to this sliver of time in which he now found himself. At last—were the only words he could conjure with his inner voice, his thoughts were so frail and weakened.”
-Lenora Tor, Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye
Before a chainsawed, magenta-bled hell floods Mandy’s insular realm of tranquility and follows the moody, gossamer aching of the film’s first hour with a synapse-shredding panegyric to ‘80s action-horror and revenge films in its second; before fantasy artist Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) is spied upon by Children of the New Dawn cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and kidnapped by his LSD-corrupted necrobiker monstrosities; before Mandy’s partner, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage), is forced to watch her burn to death for rejecting Sand sexually; before Red, armed with a fucking battle axe and reality-warping pain, metes coke-dusted vengeance upon the Children; before the film’s 1983-set world of lunar rurality transmutates into a whirlpool of Frank Frazetta hellscapes and van mural fantasias straight from Mandy’s subconscious—before all of that, there is an essential moment of hushed domestic beauty in Mandy and Red’s secluded home on Crystal Lake.
Lying in bed, their bodies overlaid with a celestial lattice of iridescent lights, Mandy and Red discuss their favorite planets—and in doing so, they each trace the arc the other will follow in the film. Mandy loves Jupiter “because the surface of its atmosphere is a storm that’s been raging for like 1,000 years, and the eye of the hurricane is so huge that it could just swallow the whole Earth.” Red chooses Saturn, about which Mandy notes, “Saturn’s pretty cool, and that was one of the first ones that we discovered, that humans discovered, so there’s, like, a lot of cool ancient myths about it and stuff.” Red pauses, changing his mind: “I like Galactus,” he says, referring to the genocidal godvillain of Marvel comics. A being so gargantuan in physical size and power that he must devour entire worlds to survive, Galactus ravages the cosmos with the Silver Surfer acting as his globe-seeking herald. Mandy then rightfully points out that Galactus is, in fact, not a planet.
“Yeah,” Red says. “But he eats planets.”
~ ~ ~
On first viewing, Mandy and Red’s planetary rankings can seem a simple, even banal, late-night conversation between two adoring partners. Yet viewed within the context of the film’s entirety, the exchange becomes a revelation of who they are, why they are drawn to one another, and what they are damned to be. When Mandy describes her affection for Jupiter, she’s not only describing the gas giant, she’s defining the turmoil that’s always raged within Red, as well as what he will become in the film’s second half: a storm of wrath that destroys all it encounters. Later, one chemically (and perhaps cosmically) altered character will go so far as to note that Red is a “Jovan warrior sent forth from the eye of the storm”—Jove being the English derivation of the Latin for Jupiter. Even Red’s name harkens to Jupiter’s turbulent crimson cyclone, the Great Red Spot.
And Red’s choice of Saturn, a ringed beauty so long-adored as to be a pillar of human mythology, reflects his love for and worship of Mandy—she is his universe, his god, his salvation. It also predicts how her spirit, her mythos—her strength of will, her love of heavy metal, her passion for fantasy—will not only bleed into the reality of the film’s phantasmal final hour just as Saturn informed Greek and Roman mythologies, but will consume that reality. For even more significant than his choice of Saturn is Red’s joking reference to Galactus: in death, Mandy will devour the world of Mandy. The force of her life, and its absence, will feast upon existence, ravaging the film’s bucolic Crystal Lake and Shadow Mountains into a prog-metal LP’s hallucinatory gatefold vista of her own beloved inner landscapes, with Red as her tortured herald.
Yet Mandy, crucially, is not Red’s story. It borrows the basic framework of a man-avenges-woman revenge thriller but uses that structure as a vehicle to explore the themes of grief and loss that act as the genre’s dual engines, themes typically left unexamined in the carnage of Death Wish-styled nihilism. While there is a fetishistic blitzkrieg of mutagenic violence and (literally) face-melting psychedelia in Mandy’s extended portrait of retribution, they are aesthetic tools that add to the sculptural experience of this profoundly mournful film rather than serve as its subject—a position reserved solely for the woman at its molten core.
Gone is the revenge genre’s requisite by-the-numbers sequence briefly introducing the female victim before she’s quickly raped and/or murdered so that a male protagonist can get down to the 88-minute business of piling nameless thug-bodies in her honor; instead, Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn present a first hour devoted entirely to Mandy (and how she fuels the motivations of those who meet her), followed by a second hour that is engulfed by Mandy, that becomes Mandy. Beneath the gloriously berserker gore-geysering misted across pink-hued panoramas molded from Dungeons & Dragons modules and VHS cover art, this is a real and raw and deeply human film about sorrow. As it flows from eerie sumptuousness to annihilative nightmare, Mandy’s story—and Mandy’s story—is one of irrevocable, irretrievable loss, and the grief that loss begets. How grief consumes the world of the griever. How it eats. How it can swallow all until nothing is left but a void reshaped into grief’s own image, and one is left facing a reality in which the entire planet feels like a living, breathing reminder of that which no longer lives or breathes.
TO KILL A STARLING
“I saw you lost and wandering Adrift upon the seas Your head is far beneath the waves But your heart should be so free.”
-Jeremiah Sand, “Amulet of the Weeping Maze”
“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock ‘n’ roll me when I’m dead.”
These strange and final words of real-life convicted murderer Douglas Alan Roberts were uttered as he was strapped to a cruciform gurney, just before his body received the lethal injection that killed him. His final statement is also Mandy’s first—the film opens on a black abyss from which the words emerge as an anonymous epigraph. Roberts’ final message to the world that hurt him, and that he hurt back, is a fitting thematic starting point for Mandy: the film is a volcanic collage of the different ways in which we process the traumas that shape us, and how we live—or die—with the gnashing grief that remains.
On the night of May 18, 1996, Roberts, then 33, was “stoned out of my mind” on the cocaine he’d become addicted to at the age of 10 to numb the pain of his abusive home life. His mind a dopamine blizzard of unpredictable violence, he robbed a convenience store in San Antonio, Texas, and then fled to a nearby apartment complex. There he found Jerry Velez, 40, sitting in a car, and forced Velez at knifepoint to drive him out of town. Once in the country, Velez stopped and exited on Roberts’ orders. A struggle ensued as Velez tried to retake the vehicle, and Roberts stabbed him five times before repeatedly running over his body with the car, ending Velez’s life.
When his cocaine whiteout faded, Roberts was consumed by grief and regret—”This was someone I’d gotten off the street. Who was it going to be the next time? A little woman? A little kid?”—and called the police. During the subsequent trial he insisted on a pro-death penalty jury and mounted no defense, noting he had a fervent death wish that sprung from the realization that the rest of his life would be one of pained isolation “23 hours a day in a cement box…So if you’ve got to spend the rest of your life like this, and if you’re like me and know the Lord, then today’s a good day to go.” On April 20, 2005, Roberts’ death wish came true.
Roberts was a man who suffered terrible pain as an abused child, but as an adult (perhaps, in part, because of that childhood suffering) caused untold pain to others on one terrible Texas night. He is both a face of the forces that randomly smash into our lives bringing ruin and death, as well as a victim of them. The pitiful sweep of his life bowed across one end of the continuum of human sorrow to another, a continuum Cosmatos’ film metamorphs into a Jodorowsky-meets-Bakshi experiential acid bath (hydrochloric and lysergic) of love and loss.
“I had a lot of unresolved anger about the way my parents died,”the writer-director said when asked why he made a revenge fantasy to explore grief as a theme and an emotional state of his own. “My mother passing away was a kind of long, terrible process, and I literally thought I might just disintegrate at the moment that she died. Instead, I manifested my grief by spiraling into a binge-drinking vortex…Then years later, the whole experience of my father passing away made me I realize that I hadn’t dealt with the death of my mother at all. I was completely suppressing it, and that was eating me alive, so I had to deal with it…In particular, I found myself drawn to the revenge genre in an almost juvenile way…but it was therapeutic to have these complicated feelings streamlined into a digestible, operatic sensation.”
Rather than allow Galactus to continue eating his world, Cosmatos created an entirely new one. A mythic, mystic movie of synth drones and metalheads, of chainsaw combat and Cheddar Goblins, of intensely powerful love and the near-galactic anguish that shadows its loss. Wedded to a lava-lamped basement aesthetic in which the shagged floor is littered with just as many Betamax dubs of Antonioni and Buñuel films as it is megatonic eye-poppers like Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, Phantasm II, and The Road Warrior, Mandy is a visionary catalogue of the ways in which we attempt to survive, embrace, or succumb to the pain of living with death, and what happens when we lose the one thing that holds our world together.
~ ~ ~
Before becoming an eater of worlds, Mandy, like Cosmatos, was the creator of one. We slip into its warm amber haze as we follow Red from the cold cobalt-grey forest of the Shadow Mountains and into their home, where Mandy sketches while radiating waves of quietude and calm. The small cabin—built entirely from window frames, as remarkably open to the world as Mandy seems to be—is like a projection of her mind, a psychic exoskeleton of strength and self-possession. Its walls are papered with her fantasy paintings, vivid visions of jungle temples, warriors, and goddesses that Red admires with awe. There is the gentle domestic harmony of eating dinner while watching Nightbeast, of boating on Crystal Lake, of camping in the woods. The private universe of their lives together, with Mandy as its stabilizing center. “It’s peaceful here,” she tells Red. “This is our little home.”
In this home is a peace where once was turmoil, a healthy union where these two were once alone. Everyone in Mandy has suffered trauma; each character bears literal or figurative scars. Mandy has both—a serrated lightning bolt of torn, fibrous tissue strikes beneath her left eye and suggests a past of darkness, a suggestion Mandy confirms when telling Red about the starlings of her youth. When she was a child, baby starlings nested in her father’s cherry tree. She thought them cute, he hated them. One day while Mandy and her friends were playing, her father brought them a pillowcase and a crowbar. Inside the pillowcase were the baby starlings. “And he told us that he was gonna show us how to kill them. And he lifted the crowbar up real high and then brought it down real hard on the little baby bird. So hard that it pushed it in the ground. It was so deep in there, like a little grave. And then he gave the crowbar to one of the kids, and then each kid took a turn in killing a starling.” When it was Mandy’s turn, she ran away.
Of all the characters in film, only Mandy appears to have attained peace with her past and with death, processing them with her art and the art of others (the film’s fictitious fantasy novelist Lenora Tor, the heavy metal of Black Sabbath and Mötley Crüe). It’s a peace she exhibits when she walks deep into the woods of Crystal Lake to find a dead fawn pressed into the ground like the starling of her childhood. She kneels before it, her face rippling from shock, horror, and sadness to finally a contemplative acceptance—this is part of what it is to exist: to end. In the strange, hypnagogic realm of Mandy, that harmony invests her with power, as if she is in total sync with this world and the space/time it exists within. At peace with the past, she is able to live in the present, and even seems able to see the future, such as when she accurately predicts Red’s fate as a Jovan destroyer. Later, she mutters in a drugged stupor that “I see the Reaper fast approaching;” in his war against the Children, Red will use a crossbow nicknamed “The Reaper.” During a camping trip, Mandy is even drawn to Red’s campfire, as if sensing fire will be her end. Her power is further implied when later she reads from her favorite Lenora Tor novel, Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye; as Mandy’s inner monologue recites the fantasy text, her voice alters and distorts, growing impossibly deeper, thunderously rumbling and powerful: “…in the fading light of the blood-red suns. It glowed frOM WITHIN. A GHOSTLY EMERALD LIGHT. STRANGE AND ETERNAL.”
~ ~ ~
If Mandy is Cosmatos’ avatar for the healthy assimilation of trauma, then cult leader Jeremiah Sand is her twisted, petulant antithesis. A desperately selfish Mansonoid false prophet, Sand is a failed psych-folk musician dismissed by the music industry (“Those scumbags couldn’t recognize a golden, radiant light even as it was cast right down upon them!”) who refashioned his grief and rage into the creation of a cult of personality to assuage his wounded ego. Claiming a special relationship with God, he created the Children of the New Dawn, filling it with pitifully aggrieved people seeking to soothe their own pain with the ascension Sand promises. So narrow is his vision and power, though, that his ragged seven-person cult lives in an empty church tucked deep within a barren quarry and spends their days driving the backroads of the Shadow Mountains in a van. Their only allies are the Black Skulls—bikers driven to sadomasochistic insanity by an LSD manufacturer who “took a disliking to them and cooked them up a special batch, and they have never been right in the head since.” The Skulls rape, kill, and cannibalize in their permanent frenzy, choosing to embrace their inner agony by ravaging their own flesh with blades, nails, and drugs. “When I seen them things,” Red’s friend Carruthers (Bill Duke) tells him, “they were in a world of pain. But you know what the freakiest part was?…They fucking loved it.”
It’s the Skulls who seize Mandy and Red’s windowed cabin on Sand’s orders, and it’s the Children who drug Mandy for Sand’s brainwashing seduction ritual. Having seen her during a backwoods drive, Sand insists on possessing her. As his gaudy solo LP spins on her turntable and LSD warps her world into a purple-pink fog of slo-mo chemtrails, Sand confronts Mandy with his ideology of entitlement: After being “wracked with unspeakable pain” for not getting a record deal, Sand was contacted by God, who “gave me his deepest and warmest permission to go out into this world and take what is so very much mine.” He then waits for her response. Mandy may have once been broken, but she has rebuilt herself and her world to what it is now, and is immune to Sand’s drugged mind games.
And so she laughs. As Sand opens his robe to show her his penis, she cackles. At the music, at the bullshit mythologizing, at his pitiful Children, at him. Louder and louder, with furiously spiteful glee, Mandy laughs at Sand, a shockwave howl that annihilates him. Standing naked before his family, futilely trying to masturbate his limp dick, Sand is reduced to tearfully begging a mirror to tell him what to do. Her laughter is a weapon, and as it shatters Sand’s manhood to shriveled splinters, it gives Mandy its most deliriously purgative and powerful scene, and it gives Mandy her most astonishing, exhilarating moment, as she funnels a lifetime of strength and suffering into one jagged, wailing laugh, a laugh that grows as rumbling and impossibly deep as her inner voice, a laugh that devours Sand’s entire world.
~ ~ ~
With Mandy and Sand representing opposing poles of how to process despair, Red is the equator that runs equidistant between them in the film’s world of otherworldly melancholy. We only sense the vaguest shape of his past within the pink mists of Mandy, but his dour rejection of a coworker’s beer hints at a possible struggle with alcoholism, while the savagery of his vengeance makes it clear he is no stranger to extraordinary violence and physical pain. Never totally healed, he lacks Mandy’s centered gravity well of calm, but is also without Sand’s supermassive black hole of greedy ego appeasement. He is simply“a sad, fucked-up guy,” who, with Mandy’s love, is able to make it to the end of each day. But the finer details of his life are obscured in the film’s vaporous primordia, rendering him a kind of Everyman. His aura of non-specifics allows viewers to project ourselves onto him—he is Cosmatos, he is me, he is you, he is each of us, struggling with his demons in a world of death, trying to hold tight to that which keeps him sane and gives his life meaning.
When Red is bound with barbed wire by the Children and forced to watch Mandy burn to death in a burlap sack for her rejection of Sand, that sanity and meaning are lost forever. We are forced to watch her burn for an agonizingly prolonged period, to truly meditate on her loss of life, rather than see her dispatched quickly so that revenge may ensue; watching from Red’s point of view as Mandy flails while consumed by fire further submerges us into his inconceivable agony as both he and we lose the most important person in this world. Later, after the Children have left him for dead and he’s escaped bondage, Red cradles Mandy’s charred skull outside their home. As he cries, the wind gusts and she dissolves into ash, carried away in a haunted and haunting portrait of irreversible loss.
In the aftermath, his body mottled with blood, dressed only in a pair of tube socks, dirty briefs, and a baseball tee featuring a roaring tiger’s face, Red staggers into his bathroom and unearths a bottle of vodka hidden deep behind a drawer. He takes several long, throat-blistering gulps, and then screams again and again and again and again. For several minutes, he psyches himself into a howling tempest before collapsing on the toilet, where he screams some more.
Watching a new Nicolas Cage performance can be a tricky thing, trained as we are to mine each new movie for manic, meme-worthy gold. To see him wailing on a shag-lidded toilet in his underwear and a tiger shirt is to assume a winking acknowledgement of this on behalf of Cosmatos, a smirking entreaty to approach Mandy as an exploitation flick joke we’re all in on. Except that it isn’t—as his screams go on, amusement sloughs away and the blunt clarity of Red’s despair is inescapable. It becomes clear how deeply sad this is. Mandy has been grotesquely assaulted and murdered, and now Red is dying as well. To see him relapsing with alcohol is to watch a man destroy the best parts of himself, the parts that Mandy loved, in order to become the storm of vengeance her death deserves. Just as Mandy burned to death, so too is Red burning all of himself away until nothing human remains. The scene isn’t some sneering showcase for Cage-Rage gif fodder (though it is a remarkable showcase for Cage); rather, it is in many ways the tone of Mandy in microcosm—what could be misconstrued as a mocking pastiche of Cannon Films excess is instead an emotionally naked primal scream of spiritual desolation. This is what it is to be left behind, to live with the raw-nerve aftermath of the death of a starling. And it eats Red alive.
STRANGE AND ETERNAL
“The church strikes midnight She’s looking louder and louder She’s going to turn on our juice, boy So she turns on the power She’s got the looks that kill, that kill She’s got the looks that kill, that kill She got the look She got the look to kill She got the look to kill She got the look to kill She got the look.”
-Mötley Crüe, “Looks That Kill”
Mandy is broken into three chapters, each with their own distinct title cards and pulp paperback font. The first half-hour charts Mandy and Red’s home life and is titled The Shadow Mountains (1983 A.D.) with a shimmering, delicate text. The second half-hour follows the titular Children of the New Dawn’s growing obsession with Mandy, and is given the blazing font of a Firestarter-era Stephen King novel.
It’s not until the beginning of the film’s last hour that the third and final chapter appears: Mandy.
Over black, in a magenta, discordant lettering that resembles the jagged scrawls of an early ‘80s black metal record, her name spreads across the screen—and it does not stop. An endless series of veins spread from each letter, then veins growing from veins, innumerable tendrils engulfing the dark, and the entire screen is flooded as Mandy—and Mandy—consumes all, retaking the void and replacing it with her coral light.
It’s a fitting representation of that final hour, in which his grief for Mandy feasts upon the reality of Red’s existence, replacing it with Mandy’s own. In death she becomes the face of his anguish, his Galactus, and as the grief overtakes him, so too does her world overwhelm his. And he becomes her herald, her Silver Surfer, her Jupiter, searching for more of the planet for her to consume, leaving in the path of his Great Red Storm a reshaped landscape straight from Mandy’s paintings and cherished Lenora Tor fantasy pulps. As Red whipsaws his skull-crushing fury across the land, massacring Black Skulls and Children alike, unfurling just behind him is a kaleidoscopic moonscape of hidden temples, fiery skies, and chasmic fissures of unholy light—Mandy/Galactus is at his heels, eating all that is and replacing it with all that was, just like the grief we carry after loss, the memories that spread and eat and alter all that we see.
~ ~ ~
“You should go in knowing that your odds ain’t that good, and you will probably die,” Caruthers warns Red as he prepares to launch his war of vengeance for Mandy.
“You have a death wish,” a Black Skull whispers to Red in the middle of his warpath to Jeremiah Sand.
“You exude a cosmic darkness, can you see that?” the chemist who poisoned the Skulls asks Red near the end of his journey.
The course of Red’s revenge does not extricate him from the pain of death; rather, it draws him closer to it. Unlike Mandy did in life, he does not create a new world for himself to live; he lets Galactus gorge upon his own. He gives in to a grief beyond his ability to comprehend or withstand, crystalizing it into a homemade battle axe to cut a bloodied path for visions of Mandy’s interiority to flood. However righteous his retribution, for all the bloodstorms of viscera and beheadings and chainsaw duels, Red is diminished. As Cosmatos notes, Red is reduced to “the sweaty, crying animal that he used to be” before Mandy. He is not coping with death, he is being swallowed by it.
In the midst of his siege on the Black Skulls, he tastes the tainted acid of the chemist, and has a vision of two things: a radio tower, and of his own face melting off his skull. It is as if in this moment, the man we know as Red is gone, melted off his very bones. What is left is simply the herald of Galactus, of grief, a vessel for her to fill. He is Mandy’s avatar now, the radio tower a psychic vision of the kind only she can have, and it leads Red to the radio tower in which the chemist—the only person left alive who knows the location of the Children’s church—lives and works. It is there that the chemist identifies Red as a Jovan warrior, and sends him on to Sand’s temple.
As Red enters the church, we bear witness to the logical endpoint of Jeremiah Sand’s attempts to take the world from others in order to assimilate his own superficial pain: he is wandering in the dark, in his underwear, babbling to God and slapping the walls. He taunts Red, proclaiming him but an animal, while boasting that “God is in this room…You can’t harm me, man…I possess hallucinations you will never know.”
Red opens his mouth to speak. Out of his herald mouth comes not his voice, but the impossibly deep and rumbling god-sound of Mandy’s, her true voice, and, mirroring the planetary conversation she had with Red in their perfect home on that one perfect night, she defines herself and Sand by their divergent relationships with pain and death: “THE PSYCHOTIC DROWNS WHERE THE MYSTIC SWIMS. YOU’RE DROWNING. I’M SWIMMING.” And as Red grips Sand’s head between his hands and squeezes with a strength beyond his own, Sand screams and insults and begs, before defiantly hissing that “I carry God’s gift in my heart, not you. So you kneel before me, motherfucker.” Again Red opens his mouth and to Sand releases the voice of the pain that now lords over them both, the voice of grief, the voice of Galactus, the eater of worlds: “I’M YOUR GOD NOW.”
When Sand’s head caves between his hands, Red shudders with an orgasmic passing of energy. The work is done, he is no longer the possessed demi-god. Nor is he the man he was before all of this; he is something else entirely, a broken barbarian lost in an alien forest of dangers. As he drives out of the quarry, his mind drifts to the moment he and Mandy first met at a club. They make eye contact, and younger Red’s face is flooded with a pink and holy light, awestruck by her presence. Mandy smiles…and then a single tear rolls down her cheek. Is it simply the horror of Red’s present infecting his memory, tainting his vision of her with sadness? Or did she truly cry when they first met, able to see in his eyes with the strange asymmetry of her own how their story would end? His memory ends without an answer.
Instead, Red is back in the car. A vision of Mandy sits next to him, smiling mysteriously and silent. His younger face has been replaced by the seamed and gore-soaked mask of the present, and he smiles back with a look devoid of sanity. The ones who are left behind carry the memory of those who are gone, and the grief that rides shotgun leaves us forever changed. This final vision of a smiling Mandy and Red—is it the first shaky step of his acceptance and peace with her loss? Or is it the last and permanent stumble into the madness of grief everlasting? Or is it some strange torment in between, the constant gnawing knowing that Galactus waits for each of us?
The car rumbles onward, into the unknown. Twin moons hang low in a sky that burns a swirl of orange and magenta—the color of fire, and the color of Mandy. In the distance, spiked cliffs of terrifying obsidian jut high and pointed from the unearthly horizon like something out of a Lenora Tor novel, like the fangs of a hungry mouth waiting to swallow all.