NOTE: Spoilers within.
One of the most profound meditations on religion and spirituality to hit theaters this year (beside Paul Schrader’s riveting First Reformed, which technically debuted last year, anyway) comes from a singularly unexpected source. The film in question, of course, is Canadian auteur Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic black-metal folk-horror sci-fi fantasy revenge thriller Mandy.
Mandy has proven one of the most divisive films of 2018. It’s been hailed by admirers as a highly original, grimly hilarious masterwork, damned by detractors as a juvenile splatterfest, a tedious, pointlessly gruesome spectacle meant only as catnip for superfans of the meme-ready oeuvre of its star – the truly peerless Nicolas Cage. Regardless of which side you fall on, there’s an argument to be made for Cosmatos’ film as a fascinating exploration of what true faith looks like – as well as the very real dangers posed by “religious” hypocrites.
1983: Logger Red Miller (Cage) and his artist girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) live together in an isolated cabin in the Shadow Mountains. Watching them together, it’s clear that these two sci-fi nerds share a profound closeness with one another – one which they hardly even need words to express. We watch as Red stares in awe at Mandy’s highly-detailed fantasy drawings, dumbfounded by her incredible talent. They’ve each dealt with their share of hardships – Red is a recovering alcoholic, and Mandy speaks early on of a traumatic memory of her father killing an infant starling, an experience that has instilled in her a deep passion for all living things – but they understand and comfort one another amid their individual struggles. Even the simplest conversations provide moments of infinite tenderness as they gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes. It’s as if they’ve lived in this perfect solitude for countless centuries, each one an inseparable part of the other.
Save for a mild sense of quiet foreboding (“Sometimes I think we should move away from this place…”), all is well in Red and Mandy’s little universe until Mandy catches the eye of a sinister cult known as the Children of the New Dawn – and their monomaniacal leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). They enlist the aid of a demonic biker gang called the Black Skulls, who kidnap the couple and forcibly bring Mandy before Sand.
The Mansonesque Sand, a failed musician-turned-Christ figure, is a clay-footed idol; he hides behind the veneer of a gentle, benevolent hippie-prophet (complete with flowing white robe and crucifix necklace) but ultimately does little to conceal that fact that his small, devoted sect exists solely as a means of finding him women to have sex with. He regales his captive with the story of how, once audiences had rejected his saccharine psych-folk stylings, a mysterious unnamed deity blessed him with “his hot, loving light” and declared to him, “‘You are not separate from all that is, so all that is…is yours.’”
We soon realize that the deity of whom Sand speaks with such grandiosity is none other than Sand himself. Self-proclaimed God-prophet, he prostrates himself at the empty altar of his own psychotic lusts and self-obsession. The image of him staring mad-eyed into a dirtied mirror, desperately beseeching his reflection to “tell [him] what to do” – and then admonishing himself never to be in doubt – offers a haunting window into Sand’s fractured psyche.
As a character, Sand is organized religion’s disdain for women pushed to its logical extreme: Deeply insecure and terrified by the opposite sex, he seeks to dominate them by whatever means he can, be it sexually or through physical and verbal abuse – in one scene, he forces Red to watch as Sister Lucy (Line Pillet) plays a round of Russian roulette in order to prove her “love” for her guru. When Mandy (who recognizes Sand as “the Reaper, fast approaching”) dares to respond to his sexual advances with mocking laughter, he all but loses his mind, shrieking for her to be silent and for his followers to avert their eyes.
The Children sentence Mandy to death – they cover her in a black shroud, hang her by a rope, douse her with gasoline and set her ablaze. The camera cuts to each member as they watch the flames roar, their faces contorting into wicked, twisted grins. Masochistic, nihilistic and viciously patriarchal, the group represents everything that’s wrong with organized religion. Though ostensibly a spiritual entity, they traffic with the Black Skulls – whose vile dependency on a tainted batch of LSD has turned them into the closest possible thing to demons in human form – and exult in “the cleansing power of fire” which “cannot be reasoned with.” Sand even smirkingly points out that Jesus’ “big mistake” was that he “didn’t offer a sacrifice in his stead” – thus delivering a death blow to any prevailing notion of the cult as some God-fearing enclave.
In killing Mandy, the Children may just as well have ripped Red’s still-beating heart from his chest. He looks on – helpless, bound with barbed wire that pierces his flesh like a crown of thorns, his pained cries drowned out by the brutal soundtrack – as an integral part of his very being is burned away forever. Her death is his death – together they are the crucified Christ, put to death for the sins of the Children.
The depth of his loss doesn’t fully hit Red until he has staggered back to his cabin in a daze and fallen asleep, at which point he experiences a vision of Mandy’s decaying body. He jolts awake, stumbles into his bathroom and breaks his sobriety by chugging a bottle of vodka in between howls, screams and sobs. The Children have broken him in body, mind and spirit – and now he must rise to life again. He must become his own savior, because there certainly ain’t no one else who’s going to save him now.
With the help of his grizzled war-vet buddy Caruthers (Bill Duke), Red prepares to hunt down the “crazy evil” “Jesus freaks” who murdered his beloved. Watching him forge and weld a glistening metallic battle-ax as the heavy score (crafted by the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson as his final film composition) rumbles in the forefront, it becomes apparent that Red’s salvation will be one of blood and hellfire, of righteous rage – things not typically associated with redemption, but then, Red is hardly your run-of-the-mill messiah.
I am in no way qualified to provide any kind of detailed analysis of the specific demons or devils represented by the Black Skulls or by any of Sand’s merciless goons. Suffice it to say that Red defeats each and every one in gloriously grisly fashion (the specifics of which I won’t do you the disservice of revealing here) as his grueling journey through the bruised, jagged mountain hellscape leads him closer and closer to his final confrontation with Sand.
It’s telling that Cosmatos chose to christen Cage’s character “Red.” It’s the color of blood, obviously, like the blood Jesus shed on the cross, but it’s also the color commonly associated with our archetypal interpretation of Satan – a bright crimson demon wielding a sharp weapon.
Red’s moniker reflects the duality of his nature: vicious and gentle, compassionate and wrathful. He murders and maims, but he does so out of love for Mandy. He descends into Hell, as Christ did, but only as a necessary step on the path to heaven – or at least something resembling closure, a balm for the gnawing grief within him. Right from the beginning, the film offers hints that Red is not one to gladly suffer a hypocrite of faith. Hearing a sanctimonious speech on his car radio from President Reagan on America’s supposed “great spiritual awakening,” he switches it off in disgust, clearly not buying all that talk of morality and goodness from a man who stood idly by as hundreds of thousands of people died of AIDS.
Red finally encounters Sand shacked up inside a pyramidic, unfinished wooden sanctuary in a secluded valley. Clad only in a loincloth and crucifix in a barren room full of pulsating light, he posits himself as the persecuted holy man he sincerely believes he is. As the threat to his life in the form of Red gradually becomes more apparent, Sand’s truest nature begins to reveal itself. He rebukes Red at first, denouncing him as an “meat without a soul,” an “unholy abomination” with “hate in [his] heart” who has “no Spirit everlasting.” He offers to help rescue Red from damnation, but Red is undeterred by his pious mockery and almost immediately has the false prophet on his knees, pleading for his life, every last scrap of pretense stripped from his façade (“I’ll blow you, man – I’ll suck your fucking dick! Is that what you want?”) Red has a simple and blunt response to his bellowing spectacle: “I’m. Your. God. Now.”
Yes, Red is God, and his devious creation has displeased him and must be cast from the face of the earth. He cartoonishly dispatches Sand and burns down his hideout, and we watch as the cruciform, now a symbol of the Children’s grim tyranny, crumbles and topples to the ground – He is risen. As he drives off, he is reunited with his lost love, if only in his fevered imagination.
Mandy draws from a number of influences – from Clive Barker and 80s cheapo exploitation/horror flicks to pulp comic books and black metal – and wears most of them proudly on its blood-soaked sleeve, right down to the grotesque TV spot for a boxed mac-‘n-cheese mix (directed by frequent Adult Swim collaborator Casper Kelly) and the clip from Don Dohler’s 1982 monster schlockfest Nightbeast. But there’s another less obvious inspiration at work here, one that befits our examination of Cosmatos’ opus as a religious character study.
The film’s stilted dialogue, bizarre good/evil dichotomy, and existential concerns in no small way mirror the hallmarks of David Lynch’s best work – in particular, the harrowing hell-and-back journey of Blue Velvet. As Tara Isabella Burton writes in her excellent piece on Lynch’s groundbreaking 1986 noir/romance, cinematic tales of faith need not be sugar-coated or sanitized in order to achieve spiritual authenticity.
In fact, just the opposite is true: In the real world, definitions of good and evil are rarely cut-and-dry, and all too often goodness is trampled upon while evil fails to receive its just reward. As such, stories of faith ought to show the faithful audience what they’re really up against in their fight to carry out holy lives in the midst of a wicked world. Mandy – a narrative crawling with drug abuse, attempted rape, murder, misogyny and pyromania – certainly fits that description. Its visually-arresting saga of death, rebirth and return to grace elevates what could easily have been a 120-minute meme into a dark religious parable of deep meaning and terrible power.