The following post contains spoilers for the movie Mandy.
There’s a lot going on in the new movie Mandy, from writer and director Panos Cosmatos. The most superficial description of the story would be that it’s a rock opera about revenge with a simmering metal soundtrack and absolutely crazy fight scenes involving crossbows, hand-forged battle-axes, and insane fantasy drugs. The revenge is especially sweet because it’s built on a tender love story between a timber worker named Red (Nicolas Cage) and his shop-clerk girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).
Red embarks on his vengeance quest because a “Jesus freak” cult leader named Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache) commands his disciples to bring him Mandy after he sees her walking down a forest road. Sand fancies himself a conduit for the message of the Messiah, and his small band of creepy, devoted hill people have pledged their souls to his cause. (In the case of his female followers, they’ve of course pledged their bodies, too.) To get his hands on Mandy, Sand dispatches both his flunkies and a horde of bikers seemingly summoned from the ninth circle of hell. They neutralize Red and bring Mandy to the cult compound — and Sand starts to attempt to indoctrinate her. The result is the film’s most surprising and disturbing scene.
Forced into a state of delirium by some super weird drugs, Mandy listens as Sand delivers his sales pitch. Telling Mandy of his mandate from Christ, Sand says, in part, “He gave me his deepest and warmest permission to go out into this world and take what is so very much mine. All of it, mine — my wants, my needs, my pleasures.” It’s a stunning monologue given straight into the camera that sounds like the most succinct, haunting version of a men’s rights manifesto — delivered completely in earnest. It is the mantra of the abuser and the bully, and this is how Sand thinks he’s upselling himself.
If there’s any clear takeaway from Mandy, Cosmatos’s second feature, it’s that the writer-director has fully had it with men — and Sand is the human dumpster he’s pouring all his fury into. On-screen, Sand is the kind of guy you could meet at a bar and find harmless or even charming at first, but who spends his free hours moderating an incel subreddit and blaming the Stacys who won’t have sex with him for his every failing. “I conceived of this character from personal experience and observation, and I thought of making him this cartoonish monstrosity,” Cosmatos says of his villain, who he ultimately decided would be much more effectively menacing if he was drawn as ordinary. And it was mostly a coincidence that the rampant exposure of abusive men across high-profile industries became a cultural flashpoint while he was making his film. “I was working on this script for six years or something like that, and eventually the world caught up to my nightmare,” he says. “The male ego is a terrifying, terrifying thing, you know? If it’s shattered, it becomes even more dangerous.”
Back to the scene in question. The entire setup is scored by Sand’s own band; the failed pop star was ousted from his folk group, robbing him of the fame he so totally deserved, and now he’s taken up the word of the Lord to keep people in his thrall. To close the deal with Mandy, Sand opens his robe and says that they — “two special people” — should “be so very special together.” With the rest of his followers looking on, Mandy rejects him in the most spectacular fashion. Faced with Sand’s naked and vulnerable body and the “opportunity” for salvation, Mandy maniacally laughs his proposition down. Sand screams at her to shut up. He screams at his followers to look away. He screams as he starts to cry. And Mandy just … keeps … laughing.
“That was one of the earliest scenes that I wanted to do. I just find there’s nothing funnier and more scary than a delusional man who thinks they’re the center of the universe, and in fact they’re not,” says Cosmatos, who kept the scene mostly unchanged over years of tinkering with the script. “They’re nothing but dangerous in that way, and I just wanted Mandy to laugh in the face of that. Because she’s the center of this film, I wanted her to be the one to essentially destroy him. He would die physically later, but I think he died right there.”
As Mandy emasculates Sand in front of disciples, the scene becomes the embodiment of Margaret Atwood’s thought experiment of asking a male friend what men fear most about women — that they’ll be laughed at — and then asking a room full of women what they fear most about men — that they’ll be killed. Mandy may sign her own death warrant by leveling Sand’s authority in that moment, but in choosing death over life as his concubine, she lands a fatal blow of her own. Sand’s paper empire is built entirely on his own ego, and he delivers his speech — which Roach performed straight through in two unblinking takes, each described by the director as “perfection — with the conviction of a divine rite. It’s a violent certainty native to warped masculinity that Cosmatos wanted to undermine with his film.
“I might actually be allergic to testosterone,” the director says. “Whenever I’ve felt a testosterone rush I get, like, sick afterwards, and I feel exhausted and terrible. I honestly think I’m allergic to it in my own body, so being around aggressive men makes me feel like shit. I’m no role model, but this is, like, off the fucking charts. The way people express themselves online, that’s also how they express themselves in the real world. That’s what’s really stunning, is this sense of entitlement is so huge that they go out in the real world and kill people over it. It’s unsettling and dystopic to the extreme.”
So even if you’re going to see Mandy for the fist-sized lumps of cocaine that Cage inhales while he kills a trailer full of sadists, it’s the slaughtering of fragile masculinity with a freshly forged steel ax that should stay burned in your brain long after it’s over.