With his second film, Paddy Cosmatos confirms himself to be a modern master of the color filter. Vaguely harking back to some feverishly imagined era of new-wave giallo, Mandy is established with hyperbolically beautiful washes of color, from a blue-green tint to the scenic Shadow Mountains in California that lends a strangely aqueous texture to the image to pulses of red and blue hazes that frequently overlap into shimmering purple. Landscape shots have a painterly quality perched halfway between the kitsch of log cabin art and the meticulously styled light of Thomas Cole. In this gorgeous, tucked-away part of California lives Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a loving couple who each seem to get life-sustaining support from the other.

No sooner does the film establish a lilting, romantic atmosphere around its lovers than Cosmatos shifts to horror, ramping up the plodding moans of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s synthesizer score. At the outskirts of this idyllic terrain, dark forces arrive, a cult of dead-eyed zombies led by the Manson-like Jeremiah (Linus Roache). Jeremiah speaks in a voice that fluctuates between airy, beatific calm and demonic growling, and the film plunges into a haze of red when he appears. Having spotted Mandy while riding through the area, Jeremiah becomes obsessed with her, summoning a squad of hellish, orc-like bikers who arrive through sulphurous mists on ATVs with red headlights that glow like bestial eyes. The subsequent kidnapping and separation of Mandy and Red is performed at a deliberate pace, progressing slowly to seep into the music’s plodding terror. This is the style Cosmatos had fully developed even in his debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and it’s remarkable just how unnerving his method—lugubrious and without spikes of jump scares—can be.

Just as Cosmatos starts to slip too completely into his frozen atmosphere, Red gets free, and the film turns on a dime in a scene of a blood-smeared, half-naked Cage stumbling back into his home and pouring liquor into his lacerated mouth as he groans like a speared hog. The scene, performed in a single take with the camera mounted statically and looking at the pantsless, howling Red from an angle, immediately juxtaposes the director’s penchant for pulsating, glacial ominousness with the unpredictable animal force of Nicolas Cage. It is a titanic shake-up, one so primal and overwhelming that it shifts the tone and style of the remainder of the film.

As Red goes on the hunt against the cultists and their otherworldly muscle, Mandy juggles Cosmatos’s steady pace with increasingly manic action. Cage’s filmography has been an extended exercise in the mutability of fury and agony, and somehow the actor continues to find new avenues of explosive performance to explore. With his wide, glinting grin, sloping forehead and hellish stares, Cage has long cut a fearsome profile, and he imbues Red with a palpable mercilessness as the aggrieved man marches after the cultists with the plodding, unceasing advancement of fate itself.

The violence grows ever gorier in Mandy’s back half, often well past the point of parody. Cage is no stranger to leaning into the goofier aspects of his persona, but more surprising is just how willing Cosmatos is to disrupt his haunting gloom with this burst of clashing energy. Even when the film slows back down, the sight of Red’s bent frame and feral face does more to shatter the façade of frigid horror than even the demonic bikers. For all the outlandish beauty of the film, its most searing image, instantly iconic among the Cage gallery, is of Red choking down rivulets of blood as he lies trapped under a monster he just killed, laughing hysterically as the gush of red fills his mouth.

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