Mandy (2018)

“The Sins of the Fathers”

In The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973), literary critic Harold Bloom famously postulates a Freudian theory of intertextuality. Resulting from his study of Romantic poets, Bloom defines six potential relationships between new artists and their forebears. I propose using Bloom’s theory to study an actual father/son relationship, that of 1980s popular Hollywood filmmaker, George P. Cosmatos, and his son, Panos Cosmatos, whose recent gonzo revenge film, Mandy (2018) gives former action star Nicolas Cage a vehicle for the best work of his career.

The most compelling of Bloom’s categories for analyzing the collision of Mandy with its cinematic predecessors is “tessera,” a totemic relationship in which the new artwork ritualistically pushes the earlier text in a new direction, one both more complete and antithetical to the basic premises of the original artwork. Mandy is a tessera of prior filmmaking, both in a literal Freudian sense of reworking the cinema of Cosmatos the Elder, but also in a more figurative sense of colliding a set of exploitation and art film practices which remain outside of the mainstream Hollywood of the prior generation of filmmakers.

George P. Cosmatos is best known as the director of Rambo II (1985), the more famous sequel to an original war trauma film, First Blood (1982), itself based on an eponymous 1972 Vietnam-era novel. Whereas First Blood grapples with the difficulties of Vietnam veterans returning to their lives in the United States, Rambo: First Blood Part II typifies Reaganite neo-conservatism.

John Rambo is asked by the military to rescue American POWs still left behind in Vietnam. The film begins with Rambo asking his superior officer if we get to win this time, following the misguided conservative logic that the United States lost the war in Vietnam due to a lack of political will back home, the nation’s strength sapped by idealistic and misguided hippies. Under Cosmatos’ direction, hard body Sylvester Stallone embodies John Rambo as a god-like mythical hero, capable of restoring the national masculinity by slaughtering countless Vietnamese soldiers to successfully rescue the prisoners.

Cosmatos’ son, Panos’ new film is in direct dialogue with his father’s work. Mandy is set in the early 1980s, and concerns Red Miller (Nicholas Cage), a logger working deep in the forests of Appalachia. A cult of villains — whom Red refers to as “Jesus freaks” — kidnap his girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), murdering her. At this point, Mandy becomes a revenge film: Red avenges Mandy by brutally slaughtering the cult members who murdered her.

Mandy begins at the end of a strenuous day of Red clearcutting trees. Oddly, for a film set in the United States, Red rides a helicopter back to civilization. The helicopter opening of Mandy throws us off the track of the film’s genre, a revenge horror exercise. However, as in a film such as The Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968), the film’s violence masks a deeper engagement with Vietnam-era cinema.

Figure #1: Red is taken away from the logging site via helicopter, linking Mandy to a cliche of Vietnam War films

As we first watch Red drive home to Mandy in his truck, we hear one of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speeches on the vehicle’s radio. In March 1983, Reagan delivered “Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals.” On the radio, we hear a snippet: “There’s a great spiritual awakening in America, a renewal of the traditional values that have been the bedrock of America’s goodness and greatness.” In his speeches of this era, Reagan associates the loss of domestic values (particularly the rise of legal abortion and pornographic culture) with the geopolitical threat posed to American democracy by the godless communism of the Soviet Union.

In one of the most obvious of Mandy’s engagements with the cinema of his Reaganite father, Red visits his neighbor, Caruthers to acquire the weaponry — a crossbow — he needs to avenge his lover. In a remarkable cameo, an aged Bill Duke portrays Caruthers. Duke is most famous for his role in Predator (1987), another neo-conservative Reaganite action film. In John McTiernan’s film, Duke plays Mac, a member of a squad of elite American special forces led by Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on a secret mission associated with Reagan’s covert and illegal operations fighting communists in central America. Along with everyone else in the unit, save Dutch, a horrific space alien murders Mac.

Figure #2: Bill Duke as Caruthers in Mandy

Figure #3: Bill Duke as Mac in Predator

In the mode of Bloom’s tessera, Panos Cosmatos’s film pressures the dominant assumptions of films of the Reaganite 1980s. Mandy rips apart Reagan’s assumptions linking the New Left’s decimation of conservative American values. Red’s lover, Mandy is a New Age painter. The two live a bucolic existence in an isolated cabin, where Mandy communes with nature and creates trippy, psychedelic art, design principles with which the film entirely agrees. Mandy’s art infects the entirety of the film’s images.

Figure #4: Mandy’s New Age artwork in Mandy

Cosmatos the Younger sets his film in the early 1980s to deliberately drain the Reaganite films of their neo-conservative ideological practices. The film divides its representation of the counterculture: Mandy’s New Ageism is celebrated, even as the cult members are rendered as pure evil. In the film’s most remarkable parody of the Reaganite speech with which it began, Red tracks down one of the murderers to his house. The beast sits watching pornography on his TV as Red attacks. While choking each other, Red slits the man’s throat, resulting in blood pouring into Red’s mouth as the villain bleeds out. In the background, a male porn star inseminates his screen partner.

Figure #5: Pornography on the villain’s TV in Mandy

Figure #6: Red slits the villain’s throat in front of the pornography on the TV

The politics of this sequence is brilliantly parodied elsewhere in the film. Red is first beginning to process the death of Mandy. The cult members have just killed her in front of him. While Red is strung up by his hands, crucified, the cult members lynch Mandy and burn her to death.

Figure #7: The lynching and burning of Mandy

After escaping, Red returns to his house to regroup. He watches a commercial on TV for macaroni and cheese. A green “Cheddar Goblin” vomits cheese onto little kids plates, and they scream with joy. The commercial is a brutal parody of capitalist culture: the blue box of processed foods clearly references Kraft’s macaroni and cheese. Perversely, Mandy links the consumption of malnourishing food with Red’s fight with the monster who aided in the murder of his wife. Graphically, the green goblin and the evil biker vomit fluids in virtually identical images.

Figure #8: The Cheddar Goblin vomits cheese

Figure #9: The Cheddar Goblin box as a parody of Kraft’s macaroni and cheese

Unlike Rambo II and Predator, Mandy is far from endorsing Reaganite values. Indeed, Cosmatos the Younger indicts the exploitation films with which it is generically linked, engaging in the referential practices of tessera far beyond merely reworking the films of his father.

Mandy sets itself up as a standard rape-revenge thriller, the most famous example of which is I Spit on Your Grave. In the 1978 Meir Zarchi film, a woman played by Buster Keaton’s granddaughter is brutally raped for the first hour of the film. Then, for the next hour, she systematically avenges her attack by ritualistically killing her rapists.

Mandy guts the reactionary gender politics of the rape-revenge film. The cult leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) kidnaps Mandy so that he may have sex with her. He ritualistically exposes himself to her while she is tied to a chair. However, rather than cowering, she begins laughing hysterically at his small penis. He flies into a rage and instead of sexual violation, lynches and lights her on fire. Jeremiah is emasculated rather than powerful; Mandy refuses to be victimized, even in death.

Figure #10: Jeremiah exposes himself to Mandy

Figure #11: Mandy laughs at Jeremiah in defiance of his presumed power over her

Mandy consistently refracts the practices of its cinematic forebears. In an act of tessera, it breaks new ground by ritualistically exorcising less compelling films. In the film’s funniest engagement with the history of the horror film, Red confronts one of his wife’s murderers. When Red tries to get a chainsaw started to attack, the villain pulls out an absurdly larger chainsaw.

Red finally gets his weapon to turn on, and the two have a duel to the death with the machines. The action sequence clearly invokes 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but again drains the earlier film of its psycho-sexual dynamics. In Tobe Hooper’s canonical exploitation film, a demented family of butchers terrorize the final girl, Sally, phallic weapons threatening the teenage girl.

Figure #12: The chainsaw duel in Mandy

Mandy transcends two very different forms of cinema via the process Bloom terms tessera. On the one hand, Panos Cosmatos expunges the neo-conservative politics of his father’s early 1980s Reaganite action films. On the other hand, Mandy assaults the gender politics of 1970s era exploitation slasher films.

Mandy transcends both forms of banal cinema via the art cinema. Early in the film, before the attack on Mandy, Red and his lover lie in bed. Shot with red filters, the film is bathed in a hot red color palate while the lovers caress each other in bed.

Figure #13: Red filter during scene with Red and Mandy in bed

Figure #14: Red filter during scene with naked Brigitte Bardot in bed in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt

The shot most clearly invokes the opening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), in which the French New Wave filmmaker uses color filters to de-sexualize its depiction of Brigitte Bardot’s naked body, a sequence forced upon the filmmaker by his greedy American producer, interested in making a profit through the production of titillating sleaze.

While Godard uses the color filters to resist the sexist display of the female body, Cosmatos the Younger is interested in far more intriguing existential game. The film’s endgame features Red bathed in the same red filters from his loving encounter with Mandy at the film’s opening. The brutality of the world has converted that love into blood-filled rage. Red enters Jeremiah’s temple. After discarding the man’s perversion of the Bible, Red crushes the false prophet’s skull after refusing the man’s pathetic groveling.

Figure #15: Red enters Jeremiah’s temple at the end of Mandy

Figure #16: Red discards Jeremiah’s Bible

Figure #17: Jeremiah pleads for his life in front of Red

Figure #18: Red crushes Jeremiah’s skull at the end of Mandy

Figure #19: Red burns down Jeremiah’s temple at the end of Mandy

But by no means is the ending of Mandy the satisfying conclusion of I Spit on Your Grave, in which the avenged woman drives a motorboat into the future, having purged the world of her evil assailants. Instead, Mandy ends with a shockingly enigmatic and disturbing sequence. The film’s violence has severed Red from the world of the living.

Red drives his truck, but no longer is its radio in contact with stations reporting on the speeches of Ronald Reagan. The trauma of Red’s experience has blasted him into an alternative plane of existence.

Red imagines driving with Mandy. In a conventional point-of-view shot, we see Mandy in the passenger seat, where the red filter might possibly return us to the loving embrace from the film’s opening. However, the shock cut to the reverse angle produces the most disturbing of the film’s images: Red has been driven insane, looking demonically at us in the audience, the camera placed where the living Mandy should be, but is not.

Figure #20: Red imagines Mandy to be driving with him at the end of Mandy

Figure #21: The reverse shot: The audience’s point-of-view substitutes for the lost Mandy, who has not lived to see Red again

The evil of the world has overwhelmed the very images of Cosmatos the Younger’s film. Red has been ripped out of reality and descended into a Surrealistic madness. We see him driving his car alone, in a background removed from reality, slathered in the abstract hot red color palate. In extreme long shot, we see Red’s car amidst an entirely new universe.

Figure #22: Red’s car abstracted from the real world

Figure #23: Red’s car driving through the alternative reality of another planet

Early in the film, Mandy asks Red what his favorite planet is. He at first names Saturn, a planet in our solar system, but then changes his mind, evoking a non-existent, fantasy planet. By the film’s ending, Red has arrived in such an alternative world, but one dissolved into the hell he must now endure after he has become a killer as a direct result of avenging his beloved.

Figure #24: The last shot of Mandy: the red-soaked alternative night sky

The sins of the fathers, both literal and figurative, have ripped apart the cinematic fabric of space and time, bathing the film’s final shot of an alternative universe in blood red.

–Walter Metz