Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) is a lumberjack who lives in the vast forest with his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) in something like an idyll, both with troubled pasts yet content in their own company and not needing anyone else in their lives, or no more than necessary. Mandy works as an artist when she doesn't have her nose in a fantasy fiction paperback, and they like to muse over such subjects as their favourite planets when making small talk, both of them in touch with the cosmic under the canopy of the universe above them as they sleep. But the trouble with a peaceful idyll is that every so often there is someone who will want to disrupt it, usually with innocent intentions. Usually.
If writer and director Panos Cosmatos' first film Beyond the Black Rainbow did not prove he had a very definite sensibility and method of going about his stories, then Mandy would underline it quite a few times for emphasis. His stock in trade with these two efforts was a dreamlike, deliberately paced tribute to the trash culture of his youth, material that was considered entirely disposable at the time yet for him was as defining as any of the classics generally regarded as respectable cinema, and he treated these works with the utmost respect, as if he were adapting some greatly lauded literature rather than making something inspired by a heavy metal album cover or horror VHS box.
Make the movie that these surface artworks conjure up in your head, appeared to be his mantra, and while the nineteen-eighties had grown to be a touchstone in genre entertainment of the twenty-first century, this begged the questions both where they would go from there and what more was there to be said on the matter? If we were to get films, television, music, games influenced by the efforts influenced by the efforts influenced by the eighties, was this a sign that culture was stagnating? Some complained this was happening in the nineties with the seventies obsession, but the eighties preoccupation appeared to be, if anything, even deeper entrenched in the psyche.
However, Cosmatos provided a ray of hope that recycling was not a bad idea: we were asked to do it with our refuse, after all, so why not our diversions? And it's not as if any item of entertainment or indeed art emerged fully formed sui generis, as everything was dependent on the experience of the creator; probably only the album by The Shaggs was an example of a piece created by people who had no idea what music was supposed to sound like as they had never been familiar with it before. Mandy was the opposite of that: no, it wasn't a remake of the British deaf little girl tearjerker, and nowhere on the soundtrack was there any Barry Manilow, but it was no less indebted to whatever its creator admired, sometimes as blatantly as lifting imagery and clichés from the past to refashion as he saw fit.
As far as there was a plot, it adopted the revenge of the older male style of many an eighties action thriller by casting the contemporary equivalent of those ageing action stars of thirty years before it, Nicolas Cage, and having him act out a vengeance plot so distilled that it quickly began to get hallucinatory around the edges until it had invaded the images right at their heart. If you had seen Cosmatos' initial outing, this might not be as fresh a take as you would have liked, yet had you enjoyed what he did there and wanted more, he was happy to supply it for you, presenting his hackneyed yarn with such malleable parameters that it was either the closest he could be to an acid trip on film, or the replication of an all-consuming psychosis without hope of a cure, or maybe without wish for one.
Using such references as the Heavy Metal comics and film, the album covers in the same vein, the fantasy and horror boom on the page (with their own cover art), Mandy went overblown with them in wildly striking manner, maybe a little empty if those things had no resonance for you, like an echo chamber of the trash arena, but with a genuine respect for what it loved as entertainment, be that Nic Cage going nuts in full-on meme style or something as simple as an action hero taking down a bad guy in a fight scene, Johann Johannsson's magnificent, ambient score offsetting the bloodshed in epic technique. When Mandy is kidnapped by a local cult (evil cults were quite the twenty-first century villains by now), Red is possessed with a lust for justice like so many before him, which somehow leads to him to activities like a chainsaw battle or forging his own battleaxe, all the better to brain his opponents with. Eventually, the dialogue hardly matters and this could be as effective as a silent movie, though that did not stop the occasional, well-chosen quotable line; aptly, this was a cult flick in the healthier form too, so if you didn't get it, there was no point in explaining.