“The psychotic drowns where the mystic swims. You are drowning, I am swimming.” It is with this paraphrased quote from author and mythology professor Joseph Campbell that Red (Nicolas Cage) addresses cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) after listening to his degenerate, manic speech about his prophetic status near the climax of Mandy. This declaration, unforgettable and hilariously campy in Cage’s mouth, is also an accurate description of the film’s central dilemma. Panos Cosmatos’ second feature – eight years after his debut Beyond The Black Rainbow – evolves in a world of heavy metal, dark woods, epic Viking legends, and pure love, but not everyone embraces the esoteric with good intentions.

Although the on-screen credit dedicated to the first song on Mandy’s electrifying soundtrack (‘Starless’ by King Crimson) may be more exciting for some viewers than others, whether or not you share Cosmatos’ goth-meets-D&D taste won’t end up having that much influence on your enjoyment of his sentimental and violent vision. His images are mesmerising in their flamboyance: by placing his camera at unusual angles and working with a rich colour palette, he often creates almost abstract visuals, with movement all across the frame.

The first 40 minutes or so of the film are dedicated to Mandy herself and justify her titular status.

The rippling water of the lake that Red and his partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) navigate on a little boat, shot from high up in the sky, pleasantly washes over the eye. Crossfades and guitar-heavy music may be amusingly heartfelt, but Cosmatos employs them with such sincerity and tact that the atmosphere they create is more enticing than it is wacky. The abundance of carefully crafted details also helps. Mandy and Red live in a cosy wooden mansion, and aim to make one with the luxurious woods surrounding them, with Mandy spending her days peacefully drawing mythical creatures and Red working as a lumberjack. In the evening, the couple meets again to tenderly stargaze.

With her long, jet black hair, Mandy is the live incarnation of the esoteric, sensual and ideal woman usually drawn standing naked next to beautiful white wolves under the moonlight. Yet she isn’t two-dimensional; nor is she an afterthought in what may first seem to be just another bloody revenge movie. The first 40 minutes or so of the film are dedicated to Mandy herself and justify her titular status. Riseborough’s beady eyes are as expressive as ever as she talks with Red about her favourite planet, and she remains the center of our attention when the vaguely chronological, dizzying narrative takes her from strange visions to gentle cuddling with her lover, and to an out-of-time, slow-motion eye contact with Jeremiah. The metric here is spiritual, with events and emotions spilling into each other with an unsettling, often captivating rhythm.

Just as the emphasis on the tranquility of the couple’s life starts to feel redundant (the film would benefit from doing away with perhaps 15 contemplative, trippy minutes here and there), Riseborough infuses some new energy in the esoteric ambiance. Kidnapped by Jeremiah and his followers, Mandy is subjected to drugs, but also to Jeremiah’s music and his pathetic defense of his cruelly unrecognised talent (he is a barely veiled reference to similarly frustrated bad musician, sect chief and murder-inciter Charles Manson).

Watch Nicolas Cage talk Mandy here:

Barely conscious, Mandy still finds the stamina and the courage to openly laugh in Jeremiah’s bewildered face and in front of all his dangerous disciples: his attempt to reach a higher level of consciousness with substances and dissonant melodies is plain ridiculous. With her infectious hilarity, Mandy clearly redraws the line between egocentric craziness and sincere mysticism, which gives Cosmatos’ confident embrace of the esoteric that much more resonance. If you want to be spiritual, you better be sincere about it.

The sudden burst of violence that follows further marks this demarcation between the mystic and the psychotic. When Mandy is atrociously killed and Red is forced to witness her suffering, physically and psychologically tortured, Jeremiah’s God is nowhere to be seen. Yet the brutal reality of bodies hurt by fire or, once Red begins his revenge tour, knives and chainsaws, has a double effect. As Jeremiah’s claims to spirituality lead him only to cowardly murder (as if he didn’t really believe in his self-proclaimed divine power), he’s brought back down to basic, simple earth. On the other hand, the degree of Red’s pain is so extreme that believing in the mystical becomes his last chance for survival – his one and only guide through the grief and the anger. Red’s rampage is even bloodier than Jeremiah’s execution of Mandy, but where the cult leader acted out of a hurt ego, the widower finds the strength to avenge his beloved in an otherworldly sense of righteousness. Red is swimming, Jeremiah is drowning.

Red’s retaliation in the film’s second half is where spirituality turns from a strangely engrossing spell into a hilarious yet touching thrill ride. It’s hard to imagine this at once heartbroken and seething character played by anyone but Cage. After painfully freeing himself from barbed wire, Red immediately reaches for the hard liquor, drinking in large gulps between tearful fits of rage.

Watch Mandy director Panos Cosmatos go shopping:

Cage’s willingness to follow the most irrational impulses has rarely been better put to use, except perhaps in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (which Cosmatos may be winking at with a well-placed lizard in one scene) where drug depency made him similarly mad with anguish. His total fearlessness of ridicule perfectly matches with Cosmatos’ unapologetic veering into extreme and cathartic violence.

It would be pointless and a pity to try and describe Red’s killing tactics. Serendipity, energising drug use, and useful blacksmith skills help the bereaved man pillage through the various people responsible for Mandy’s passing. Cosmatos populates his film with an array of extremely disturbing characters for the much more conventional Red to defeat and become a true crimson king, the contrast making for uproarious and deeply satisfying moments of gruesome extermination.

When body horror is so artful and justified, its silliness only makes it more uplifting. Perhaps this sleight of hand is a kind of magic in itself, as it turns Mandy into a little miracle: a personal, bold genre film that paints the esoteric as both amusing and worth taking seriously.

Mandy was reviewed as part of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. For more reviews, check out our thoughts on Under The Silver Lake, here.