Original-Cin review/interview: Nic Cage's beast mode and Canadian Panos Cosmatos raise the Midnight Movie bar in Mandy

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B plus

Near the end of 2012, when the prizes for Best First Canadian film were being handed out, those of us in the Toronto Film Critics Association had a look at an odd sci-fi fantasy entry called Beyond the Black Rainbow. 

The director was Panos Cosmatos, a Rome-born Canadian in his thirties who had grown up in the film business as the son of director George Cosmatos (The Cassandra Crossing, Rambo: First Blood Part II).

The plot of his film was pretty much impenetrable, involving as it did, a mad scientist, an imprisoned young woman with psychic abilities, drugs, ceremonial daggers and beings in red metal suits. But the film was luridly fascinating  - every distressed-looking frame echoing faded VHS tapes. The images evoked Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, Andrei Tarkovsky and Tobe Hooper. 

Nic Cage, not yet losing his sh— in Mandy. Tick, tick, tick…

Nic Cage, not yet losing his sh— in Mandy. Tick, tick, tick…

That year, Black Rainbow took the group’s 2012 best first feature, tied with Beasts of the Southern Wild. Though initially dismissed as a trippy oddity, the film’s reputation has crept up on us since then, ending up on a series of best contemporary science fiction lists.

Now we finally have the release of Cosmatos’ follow-up Mandy, with bigger stars (the reason for the long delay) but a similar phosphorescent nightmare esthetic.  Nicolas Cage plays a woodcutter, Red Miller, who lives in a cabin with his wife, Mandy, a fantasy novel illustrator, played by the darkly edgy English actress Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes, the TV series Blood Lines). The couple have the vibe of two social dropouts and wounded souls who have some found a haven in each other, though it doesn’t last long.

Shortly after we meet them, Red and Molly are attacked by a Manson-like gang led by an evil guru (Linus Roache) who can invoke a quartet of zombie bikers in to his will. I can’t spare all the gory details because there wouldn’t be much to talk about: Soon, Red is roused to revenge and actor Nic Cage unleashes his inner beast, once again.  While the movie spreads plenty of red stuff around, it also comes with a outrageous streak of black humour: Are you ready for a foaming Nic Cage in a chainsaw duel?

Director Panos Cosmatos

Director Panos Cosmatos

While Mandy works perfectly well as heady Midnight movie shlock, the film’s mournful tone and obsessive style go beyond the genre requirements.   The director, now 44, has preserved the unfashionable pop culture of his childhood in a jelly of intense emotions -- faded video movies, fantasy art, Dungeons and Dragons games and progressive rock music.

I spoke to Panos Cosmatos, for a few minutes, by phone, last month about some of the personal quality in his films  (I was in a hotel lobby, surrounded by the noise of the first Toronto International Film Festival press conference, so I’m afraid this is paraphrase, not transcription.)

Both of his films are set in 1983, when he was nine, a couple of years after moving to Victoria, B.C., from his birthplace in Rome. Both films, he says, are different responses to the deaths of his parents. 

Cosmatos’ father died at the age of 64 in 2005, when Panos was 21. But with his father’s passing, he felt the delayed aftershock of the death of his mother, Swedish-born sculptor, Birgitta Ljungberg Cosmatos, who had died, when he was in his adolescence. Panos’ first film Behind the Black Rainbow, is a story of control, Mandy is a story of catharsis.

The wait was long to get the stars he wanted, and he admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that he supported himself in the in-between years doing commercial work. But Cage was “pure joy” and Riseborough “one of the best actresses alive.”

One detail in the film is an example of how personal the process is for him. Andrea Riseborough’s character, Mandy, wears a pair of oversized metal aviator glasses in the film. They’re true to the period, but too prosthetic-looking to qualify as geek chic. What’s the story?

The spectacles, he says, are a tribute to a woman who he met briefly many years ago as a kid, when he bought a ZZ Top-emblazoned wallet from a table at the Victoria’s JayCee Fair (Junior Chamber of Commerce).  Panos was mesmerized by the woman and her glasses. After making the purchase, he turned around to walk away. He felt a thrill when he heard her call out, “Hey!”

“I thought she was calling me back to talk but I’d forgotten to pick up the wallet,” he says.

The symbolism seems almost too precise: The glasses as distorted hindsight; the past that calls him back to remember the wealth he left behind.

Mandy. Directed by Panos Cosmatos and written Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewar-Ah. Starring; Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache. Mandy can be seen at Yonge-Dundas 24 and the Eglinton Town Centre.