More Human Than Human
By KKURRTT and Tex Gresham
Nicholas Cage stars as Red in 2018’s Mandy, an LSD-drenched revenge film from Panos Cosmatos. Red and Mandy are living the quiet life in the Pacific Northwest when their whole existence is disrupted by a psychopathic cult leader, Jeremiah Sands, and his loyal followers who summon demonic entities known as the Black Skulls to kidnap and kill Mandy. Through surreal color palettes, creamy dream time-warping, and a distorted line between ethereal and hyperreal, Mandy transcends the revenge narrative into a tale of love tortured and destroyed before plummeting into a broken man’s attempt to reclaim that love from the depths of fire and pain. Okay… so it maybe is just a regular revenge film. But it’s a really fucking badass one.
KKUURRTT: I wish I could summon demons to do my bidding.
Tex: I mean you do kinda get me to do a lot of shit you don’t want to do.
K: Go get me a Travis Scott meal from McDonalds.
T: I watched you misspell McDonalds like five times.
K: McDonal, Mcdonel, MacDonald, Mr. Donald, McDownload, fuck–
T: But anyway, Mandy…
K: Happy Halloween from all of us at Babou 691. I think we picked this because ’tis the season, but after watching the film again it feels like the least Halloween film I could ever imagine. It’s so fundamentally tragic.
T: It is one of the saddest films I can think of. And it is the surreal elements (the constant slowing of time, the color/light obfuscation, the distortion of realities, and on and on) that lend more sadness than I expected because the whole thing feels like a nightmare where the person you love is killed. I’ve had dreams like that and remember waking up in tears, primally sad.
K: As a psychedelics enthusiast, I often react negatively to films labelled psychedelic—as if an interesting color palette is enough. The psychedelic experience is much more than that, and often film seems to capture it in a way that feels criminally underdeveloped. This film dreams up new ways to include elements of hallucination and dissociation before actual psychedelics are even brought into the fold. Though we’re watching something surreal, it always reminds the viewer it’s in “a reality,” making the fear of losing the one you love all the more palpable.
T: The scene where Jeremiah Sand’s face morphs with Mandy’s was a moment that a) I’d never really seen in a movie before, and b) was an experience I had the first time I ate shrooms and seeing it kinda made me wanna take that one-two punch of LSDVisine and murder hornet sting—even though Mandy wasn’t really having a good time. I respect this movie for not going cheap on the visualization of that experience.
K: It would be like if the first half-an-hour wasn’t the most serene love story you could imagine. There’s this older couple (no kids) living out in the middle of nowhere, all they need is each other, nothing else. There’s a version of this movie that’s more like Straw Dogs, where they’re young and hip and have the whole world ahead of them. But this movie places you in an environment past that, where Red and Mandy are content at the lot they’ve been given. We believe fully that this is it for them. They don’t need anything more than a good book, a record, and each other. The movie doesn’t dare to go cheap until the second half.
T: And that is absolutely necessary and why I find this movie so engrossing and heartbreaking—taking the time to set up a love that is quiet and solid and intimate is essential to fully understand the depths this man is willing to go to avenge this horrible removal of what is, really, the only thing keeping him alive. It’s very sincere, even while the visuals and soundtrack border on slapstick pastiche.
K: For the kiddies, right? Gotta do something to sell movie tickets. Or streaming subscriptions. Or illegal downloads. Sincere doesn’t sell in trailers. Sincere is an added bonus. Cheddar Goblins sell streams. Fuck, I probably only watched this movie because of the Cheddar Goblins bit in the first place—which ends up as a throwaway TV commercial playing on TV after his wife has been burned alive by Jeremiah Sands. So much so that when I watched this movie for the first time it didn’t really connect with me. I was expecting more Cheddar Goblins. Like what the fuck did I really want? Nic Cage in a Ghoulies reboot? Come on. (Even though that DOES sound amazing).
T: I thought the same thing, that there would be more “monsters” or “goblins”—but the fact that the baddies in this movie are human (and humanoids à la a blendered-up version of Hellraiser and Mad Max) lends to the reality of this nightmare, because we never know if these demons (the Black Skulls) are really just dudes who’ve taken so much LSD (made by the Children of the New Dawn and their occult tools) or if they are true demons summoned from the ethereal realm. I guess we could kinda see anyone who kidnapped or killed our loved ones as a demon, wouldn’t we?
K: Watched this film and couldn’t help but think about the Vietnam War. 1983. Nic Cage is 50+ while making this film. There is no way Red wasn’t in “the shit.” Especially considering how quickly he becomes a killing machine in the second act. Life has handed him demonic scenario after demonic scenario. PTSD is a hell of a drug, man. By the time he’s chopping up baddies with his fire-forged axe, he’s lost all sense of reality. Mandy WAS his reality.
T: I’ll buy that for a dollar.
K: A Shudder subscription is about $4 a month.
T: Yeah, but I bought a special edition steelbook bluray of this movie for like $25. So really—I’ll buy that for $24.99 plus tax and shipping.
K: Jeff Bezos is the real demon, huh? Can we please get back to a real point?
T: Fine, how’s this—The uncertain horrors of the Vietnam Conflict made a man question his reality, gave him demons in the shape of other men. Mandy was that antidote — not to put the pressure of curing a man on the responsibility of a woman, but for this movie, that’s the reality.
K: All to just fall apart in the second half of the film after he takes the sip of the custom batch of LSD, and rails probably an entire eight ball of cocaine off the edge of a knife. This movie completely fucks with act structure. It’s not three acts, but two acts. Act One—Love story gone wrong. Act Two—Let’s fuck some motherfuckers up in the most badass way possible. I think a lot about how lame Nic Cage’s lines are in his most badass movie, Con-Air. “Put the bunny back in the box.” But here, he barely says anything. Just straight up fucks some people who deserve it up. It’s like he didn’t get a fair shake at Ghost Rider and this is his redemption song.
T: He snorted the coke off a jagged hunk of glass—another symbol of his now-fragmented self.
K: Yeah, I’m terrible at retaining details. This is why [REDACTED] hates me, because in a review I wrote of his poetry collection [REDACTED] I got some details wrong. So FUCKING SUE ME, ALRIGHT? It’s hard to pay complete and total attention.
T: You hear that, [REDACTED]? Let’s jointly sue KKUURRTT for like six bucks and a Travis Scott meal. Unless KKUURRTT has the Horn of Abraxis and can call demons up from the Abyssal Plain to kill us.
K: I refer you to the opening line of this interview.
T: “I wish I could summon demons to do my bidding.” If wishes were assholes… I’d be eating calamari.
K: What do you think the Panos Cosmatos meal would be at McDonalds?
T: Something equivalent to the McSurf-N-Turf Deluxe. With a kid’s meal box full of fries already slathered in ketchup. And like a large coffee, black, for the drink.
K: Colored orange, for effect.
T: So you think the first half of this film is better than the second half?
K: Better? Come on, what is this, a high school popularity contest? Sure I was nominated for the senior superlatives of most likely to be famous AND class clown, but I didn’t win either and somehow that’s more upsetting. I don’t like it better, no. I just think it’s sincere where the other part RIPS. Would one have as much effect without the other? Probably not. This is a repeat-viewer for sure. I think the second half maybe has more replay value, but that’s just the charm of pinball, baby.
T: One thing I feel like these types of movies do well—and we discussed this notion with Inherent Vice—is that there is no end once we’re done with the narrative. Doc Sportello is gonna continue driving the streets of Gordita Beach. Red is going to… what? What do you think is up next for Red’s reality?
K: Nothing man. Red’s gonna sit at that house like a vegetable for the rest of his days. He’s gonna be exactly like how Bill Duke plays Caruthers. A non-entity. Which, tying it all back together, and hitting that sweet sweet full circle, makes it all the more tragic. Is this movie the ultimate guy cry?
T: I think so. I think any movie that deals with the tragic loss of the loved one and the result is the male figure loses his state of self in order to enact the primitive urges to kill those who have done him and his loved one wrong are the ultimate guy cry movies. I mean, I honestly tear up every time the ending of this movie comes and he thinks back on the first time he met Mandy in the club and then she’s in the car with him, smiling. It’s a moment that anchors this idea she’ll be with him—whether as a good or bad omen is uncertain. I think you’re right about him sitting like a vegetable, but I think it’ll be less lonely as he’ll have some ethereal version of Mandy with him, as his act of revenge brought her back from the fire where one of the Black Skulls insists she “still burns.” Did you check out the post-credits scene?
K: Fuck, no—
T: It’s just Mandy’s art table, with all her drawings. At the center is a very nice drawing of Red smoking a cigarette. The whole thing’s coated in this early morning sun, golden, crisp. And in the background, birds singing, happy to be a part of a new day. It’s a very hopeful button to an otherwise dark and downtrodden film. And I think it leaves, like surreal films often do, an opening that says “No, you don’t get closure here.” Sorry, I’m feeling kind of serious and unfunny today.
K: Who cares, dude. Sometimes that’s life. Happy Halloween?
T: I celebrate Samhain privately.
Mandy also stars Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache and Bill Duke. KKUURRTT and Tex are frequent collaborators. Together they host a postmodern film podcast with the same name as this column.
KKUURRTT is glad you read his thing. His novel Good at Drugs is forthcoming from Alien Buddha Press. He can be found on Twitter at @wwwkurtcom.
Tex Gresham is the author of Heck, Texas (Atlatl Press). His work has appeared in Hobart, F(r)iction, The Normal School, BOOTH, and Back Patio Press. He lives in Las Vegas with his partner and kid. He’s on Twitter as @thatsqueakypig and online at www.squeakypig.com.