'Mandy' Is Hallucinatory Fantasy, Half 'Dark Crystal,' Half 'Conan the Barbarian'

I first watched Mandy with equal parts dread and anticipation. In his debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow, writer-director Panos Cosmatos distilled the spiritual essence of genre movie appeal. It's stylized, showily dated, but not referential; not Quentin Tarantino or the recent Let the Corpses Tan. Rainbow is like a dream state. Strange medicines fog our senses, instrument panels blink cryptic data about interior states, eyeballs roll. Its eerie mood lingers, but Rainbow struggled to find a motive agency, stretching itself through to its end with little more to latch onto than a gripping and evocative aesthetic.

But Mandy is different. Rather than technic, Mandy is overgrown with verdant spirituality. It's sensual, tangled and wild. As hallucinatory and experimental as his debut, Cosmatos also finds in the fantastical aspects of nature—Satan's church, as Lars Von Trier would have it—a dark and vigorous core of humanity.

Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) finishes another day of chainsawing trees in silence, then heads home to his forest redoubt—a cabin made of windows, his life open and innocent in a state of nature—where Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) paints fantastical jungle temples and part-god, part-animal, part-human chimeras. Their relationship is calm and confessional, simultaneously a mystic and mundane union. They discuss their favorite planets in bed, or eat mac and cheese in front of the TV. Together, they live in an intoxicating state of simplicity, even as something gnaws at Red's instincts: a sense of danger, a desire to move on that can't be reconciled with the life they've built in The Shadow Mountains (as our first of several chapter intertitles labels it, glittering like a Lisa Frank sticker affixed to a cave wall deep below the earth).

Then Mandy is kidnapped by cult leader Jeremiah Sand, who toys with the trappings of Christianity and Satanism, but whose only real ideology is a narcissism so perfect it warps reality. The demons with which he communes are found in his own reflection. "They were wrong and you were right," they tell him, or he tells himself. "You are not separate from all that is, so all that is, is yours."

Red is left for dead.

Mandy, with her unexplained scar and childhood trauma, cannot be cowed by Jeremiah and his group of sycophants, even after an injection from a giant, bottled wasp and an eyedropper full of bad batch hallucinogens leaves her helpless and tripping out as Jeremiah brags of his psychedelic folk-rock past (playing for her his absolutely era-perfect single: "Amulet of the Weeping Maze").

"I see the reaper fast approaching," she tells Jeremiah. Red is coming for them.

Though set in "our" world, Mandy is a fantasy movie, with horror elements ripped straight off the side of a heavy metal roadie's van. Jeremiah's cult bears demonic relics like the "the tainted blade of the pale knight, straight from the abyssal lair." Cenobites on ATVs are summoned to do his bidding. Heavy Metal animation guides Red on his rampage against Jeremiah and his Children of the New Dawn.

Mandy embraces everything rad, both in its sludge metal authenticity and hair metal silliness, Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn balancing cosmic grief, extreme violence and counter-tonal oddities (like the "Cheddar Goblin" spewing all over the kids on Red's TV screen), with such mastery it's hard to look away from the kaleidoscope of color filters and hazy slow-motion. Every shot is composed with a directorial conviction heavy with hermetic knowledge and occult power.

Performances are uniformly entrancing, with Linus Roache playing Jeremiah somewhere between Charlie Manson and BOB from Twin Peaks, lashing back and forth between a pathetic, howling emptiness and thunder-rolling wrath. Riseborough is so haunting and unworldly as Mandy—fixing us with her gaze, judging our world right through the screen—that it's disappointing when Mandy becomes the Nicolas Cage show in its second half.

Andrea Riseborough as Mandy. RLJE Films / SpectreVision

Mandy builds such a potent, heady mood, it's hard not to feel a little deflated by how it's used. The first hour of Mandy builds out a fantasy world full of magic and woodsy enchantment, the second hour goes about tearing it down. A switch is flipped, from epic fantasy to barbarian fantasy; from The Dark Crystal to Kull the Conqueror.

Cage slicing through drugged-out monsters, chainsaw fighting cultists and communing with a psychic, LSD oracle is extremely fun, but Mandy so effectively builds an uncanny, monumental mood that it's a little jarring arriving at the realization that it's all in service of a straightforward revenge movie plot. Mandy had me wanting more of Mandy. Once that transition is made; once you realize Mandy has crossed over from intoxicating magic ritual into head-thumping carnage, it's possible to savor Cage at his most committed, playing a role expansive enough for his outsized personality (this is top tier Cage, not just so-crazy-he's-great Cage), screaming lines like "You ripped my favorite shirt!" or "There were bikers and gnarly psychos and … CRAZY EVIL."

Mandy is an astounding improvement on Cosmatos' first movie, adding fantastic characters and a legible, adrenal plot without losing any of his surreal visual flair and mind-bending sensibilities. It's a movie that thwarts your expectations, rewriting the world so comprehensively it feels like a fable from an alternate dimension, straight off the pages of a fantasy paperback.