Mandy director Panos Cosmatos is not a fan of shaky cameras. His visually and aurally arresting ode to high-octane '80s genre movies – led by a reliably barmy Nicolas Cage opposite a chameleonic Andrea Riseborough – is framed with Kubrick-like rigour.
That perfect, gliding focus is punctured momentarily by an arresting jolt just as Cage’s peace-loving lumberjack, Red, broken and bloodied, is pushed over the edge in an eminently GIF-able, vodka-fuelled bathroom scene.
The brutal murder of Riseborough’s fantasy novel-reading Mandy shatters the inherent bliss of her hippy with Red in a cabin in the woods. Immediately after the event, an unhinged Red sets out to destroy the Children of the New Dawn, a sketchy cult led by Linus Roache’s sneering Jeremiah Sand.
An unusually melancholic and mesmeric addition to the malevolent revenge narrative that’s co-written by Aaron Stewart-Ahn, Mandy bowed at Sundance before spearheading a mind-bending 12-hour Cage-a-thon of the Con Air star’s most memorable movies at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It will now enjoy a one-night-only showcase nationally on September 21, hosted by Monster Fest.
Infused with blood red light and dread-filled synths, the film is a product of Cosmatos’ teenage longing. Though his late father, George P Cosmatos, also a director, worked on violent flicks like the Sylvester Stallone-led Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra, he wouldn’t allow his teenaged son to indulge. Instead, Cosmatos junior, growing up in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, would daydream in video stores, imagining the other worlds depicted on the VHS covers arrayed before him.
“I yearned to watch them,” he says. “I was a very solitary child and they just seemed like these amazing, forbidden objects. Just looking at the artwork, and reading the descriptions on the back, generated these explosions of dark imagination in me.”
Cosmatos recalls reading, many years later, that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain had no access to punk music while growing up in Aberdeen, Washington, instead reading about punk bands in magazines. “So he listened to heavy metal and imagined what punk rock sounded like, and I think, in a way, that’s what generated the Nirvana sound. There’s something very interesting about that, about thinking what it could be.”
While violent movies were off limits, his parents placed no limitation on a young Cosmatos’ reading habits, mainlining risqué fantasy novels and Dungeons and Dragons modules, despite having no friends with which to play the latter. “Maybe reading was thought of as a more academic pursuit, or they just wilfully underestimated that a book can be thousands of times more intense than anything in a movie,” he chuckles.
Helping out on set on George’s penultimate feature Tombstone, it wasn’t until five years after his father’s death that Cosmatos marked his own debut with Beyond the Black Rainbow. Depicting, in similarly trippy style, the escape of a young psychic woman from a pseudo-scientific research laboratory, both it and Mandy are set in 1983, one year before Orwell’s annus most ominous.
“My goal from the very beginning was to make very visually lush, juicy films that you can really sink your teeth into,” he says. “That’s always been part of my modus operandi. I want my films to be very tactile, visually and sonically.”
Describing Beyond the Black Rainbow as akin to a Pink Floyd song, Cosmatos notes Mandy kicks things up a gear. “This is like a Black Sabbath song, with a chunky, throbbing forward momentum.”
Both feature music almost as a character. “I’ve been lucky so far that I’ve worked with composers that understand this idea of painting onto the image with texture and sound, not just illustrating, in a very specific way, what you’re seeing and telling you what to feel,” Cosmatos says.
He was surprised Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson took on the project in what would, sadly, prove to be one of his last scores. “I thought he would have zero interest, but it turns out that he was actually a Black Rainbow fan,” Cosmatos says. “He as a very sensitive, creative person who makes these very melancholy soundscapes, but also an Icelandic metal-head who had all these other facets to him. I felt a kindred spirit in him.”
For all that Cage unleashes in Mandy, the director says his process is exacting. “He is a very meticulous, prepared and methodical actor, everything he does is very thought out and modulated. He puts a great deal of time and energy into preparing himself for these moments in the film.”
Roache, too, put a lot of thought into whether or not to go full-frontal for Mandy’s disturbing kidnap sequence, still something of a rarity to see in North American movies. “He didn’t want to do it initially and I thought he was perfect for the part and was really looking forward to working with him so I thought, ‘we can make this work without it,’ and I never tried to push it on him,” Cosmatos says. “After he had some time to sit and dwell on it on his own he came back to me and said, ‘you know, I think it would be a shame if he didn’t get naked, it’s kind of integral to the feeling you’re trying to create here.’ And I do think it adds something to that scene.”
That makes two-for-two on the full-frontal front in Comsatos’ movies. “I don’t know why that keeps happening, but I can’t stop it,” he cackles.
Commenting on the remarkable energy shared between Cage and Riseborough, Cosmatos notes that it was extremely important to him that the latter was central to the story. Indeed, even after Riseborough’s character is killed, she continues to appear as a warrior queen in animated sequences playing out in Red’s troubled mind.
“The core concept of the film was to create a revenge movie that orbited around the person being avenged,” he says. “I wanted her to be integral to that, that her spirit is guiding this man’s action from an immortal plain. It’s almost as if she has transmogrified into a primal god spirit that is empowering him.”
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