“The girl burst out laughing. She knew she was nobody’s meat.” – Angela Carter, ‘The Company of Wolves’

A meditation on grief disguised as a revenge thriller-cum-demonic horror film, Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy eviscerates violent forms of male power, pitting them against the virtues of sincerity and tenderness. The film surprised me endlessly: come for Nicolas Cage fighting a demon and smoking a cigarette off its decapitated, flaming head; stay for the deep (and painful) dive into one man’s experience of harrowing personal loss. The film is visceral, first in its evocation of a tender relationship, then in its gory, volcanic descent into a hell – complete with bikers from an underworld, religious/sex cult members, and a weapon aptly called the Beast. In fact, at any given moment, Mandy is just so much; I can’t imagine being left cold by it. When I saw it back in September, in a packed cinema, the people around me laughed to the point of hysteria. When I got home from the film, I sat on my floor – alone, breathless, and miserable, unable to do anything.

At almost exactly the halfway point of the film, Mandy ties up its heroine and sets her on fire. It’s a strange thing to do, to kill the heart of your film, but that’s exactly what Cosmatos does. The rest of the film is a melancholy, acid-drenched tone poem, a delve into the underworld through a man unhinged. This is Red, Nicolas Cage’s lumberjack with a sensitive soul, and he’s just lost Mandy, the love of his life, a rural store cashier who lives peacefully inside comforts: her art, her books, her home. As Mandy, Andrea Riseborough haunts, her eyes like those of some pagan god, watching the mayhem of the world around her as it comes apart. It’s ironic, then, that the man who kills her, Jeremiah, considers himself a new Jesus, and believes the world was made for him.

Mandy is a film cleaved in two. Its beginning is slow, an inverted image of the insanity of the second half. Instead of violence and brutality, Cosmatos offers tenderness. Mandy and Red live in a quiet idyll, their woodland home a refuge from the trauma of Mandy’s past. The only time we ever see them disagree on anything is when Red suggests that they move away. “This is like our little home,” answers Mandy. It’s a simple answer, but its implications are heavy: these characters don’t feel like they could exist anywhere else – they’d disintegrate. This is exactly what happens to Red, his mind collapsing upon itself as he descends into a drug-fueled, relentless journey to the depths of hell, a world without the woman he loves.

The tenderness of the beginning of the film frames itself as antithetical to this violent expression of male ego. Mandy discloses a painful memory of past trauma to Red: her father cruelly killing starlings, inviting her and the other kids of her neighbourhood to join in. This story – perhaps a reference to Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling, another cinematic heroine who suffers the gaze and ego of entitled men – highlights Mandy’s extraordinary sensitivity, something that the film sees as a gift, not a hindrance. Red’s response to Mandy’s recollection is tender, quiet – full of love. Moments of kindness like this anchor the film, give it its emotional punch. And so, when Mandy comes across a dead deer in the woods, her revulsion – and knowledge that trouble is ahead – becomes ours, too.

Mandy’s filmmaking functions as a kind of ode to its titular character, its score and visuals melding themselves to fit her ethereal figure. Mandy lives in a world painted in pink and purple and red haze. The art that she makes is warm, like her, and when she and Red lie in bed, she’s centred in the frame, a kaleidoscope of light shining on her face, almost eclipsing Red. Her creative inner world is a key in understanding the aesthetic of the film, as the two seem to function symbiotically – when she’s there, it’s harmonious, and when she’s gone, chaos reigns. It’s through this lens that stark visual choices make sense – a scene in which Nicolas Cage screams in a bathroom, downs vodka from the bottle, and cries is remarkable not just for the intense sincerity and conviction Cage brings, but also the ugly clarity of the visuals, stripped of the haze that Mandy brought with her. The moody visuals return, infecting the world with remnants of Mandy, embodying her power and importance in Red’s life. It’s hard to know which parts of the second half of the film to take at face value, as we experience the world through Cage’s Red, high on grief and otherworldly cocaine. Red’s mental state is inseparable from Mandy’s creativity, down to the animated segments that recall Mandy’s art and give life to Red’s dreams. This is one way to understand Mandy’s final shot, too – that apocalyptic, two-mooned sky pulled straight from one of Mandy’s fantasy novels – a signifier that Red has lost all control over his mind, his imagination devoured by memories of Mandy.

I can’t write that the film, ultimately, is empowering – that would be too bold a statement for the way it treats bodies, especially women’s bodies – but there’s something tragic and deeply felt about the ways in which the film exposes male power in all forms to be futile and dangerous. The destabilising of Jeremiah’s violent ego is insisted upon recurrently, highlighting the dangers of men like him. Cosmatos insists on this in an interview with MUBI Notebook, speaking of the way that “[the] stripping away of […] delusional self-image can be a dangerous thing when it comes to certain men.” The film places two kinds of masculine power at opposite extremes – Red facing off against Jeremiah, climaxing in an encounter in a church at the end of the film. Jeremiah is convinced that God “gave me his deepest and warmest permission to go out into this world and take what is so very much mine. All of it, mine – my wants, my needs, my pleasures.” His entitlement acts as an antagonist to the film, a force connected to murder and rape.

At the same time, and not at all paradoxically, his violent actions are never acted out by himself alone. Instead, it is his army of followers who act (both willing and unwilling – the film has empathy for the youngest, most vulnerable member of the cult, a young woman who survives Red’s wrath), as well as the bikers he summons from hell. Red jumps hurdles to get to him, his own violent path contrasted with Jeremiah’s sanitary means. And when Jeremiah and Red finally meet, the former crumbles, shrinking to the floor and begging Red to spare him, offering anything. Jeremiah’s pleading for his life pushes him to offer Red oral sex, a tonal misstep in a film that otherwise manages to pull off its tightrope walk of moody atmosphere with all-out insanity. It’s the only moment of the film that feels cynical, intended to garner laughter – a homophobic gag that lazily shorthands Jeremiah’s emasculation. Red, of course, kills him, pushing his eyes into his head and proclaiming, “I’m your God now.” Needless to say, it’s a short-lived trip to godliness.

Red’s journey in the second half of the film is characterised by its unbound success – the axis of its narrative is a straight line, diagonally descending or diagonally ascending. It’s the ambiguity of this line that brings propulsion to the lack of challenge – where, exactly, is Red going? And what awaits when all the cult members and demon bikers are gone? Mandy offers small pockets of catharsis – like Red slicing the throat of Jeremiah’s most ardent follower before he can finish saying, “It’s better to burn than to…” – but ultimately, the film offers no easy way out. Never is this more clear than after Red and Jeremiah’s final confrontation, when Red gets in his car, drives, and turns his head to see Mandy, sitting in his passenger seat. A cigarette at her lips, and a cool, inscrutable look on her face, she is not herself. This elusive, dream-Mandy is juxtaposed with a manic Red, his strange grin and wide eyes popping out of his blood-stained face. But this tragic shot-reverse-shot reminds us of the futility of Red’s path – under that crimson, primordial sky, all the violence in the world can’t bring back the dead. The last time we see him – those eyes white and wide – hurts, because we know that she’ll only exist now as a ghost.

Despite Mandy’s rejection of traditional forms of power, and its unwillingness to grant final resolution, the film insists on alternative avenues of strength. One image stands out as genuinely powerful, truly cathartic. The only pure expression of power in the film comes from Mandy herself. Jeremiah, having had his followers kidnap and drug Mandy, intends to seduce and induct her into his cult. He brings her to his cabin, presents her to the cult like granting her an audience with the king, plays her a song about himself. Standing in front of her, naked, he expects her full subservience: in her, he has seen a true prize, an object to be won and to be cherished above all others.

The film superimposes Mandy’s face onto Jeremiah’s, letting their figures melt together until it becomes hard to tell one from the other. And then, a truly extraordinary moment: Mandy, with her quiet, closed-off face, ever-inscrutable, erupts into liberating, beautiful, shocking laughter. This act of violent rebellion reveals fragility – when Jeremiah looks at Mandy’s laughing face, he sees himself, his vulnerability, his ridiculousness, laid bare. It seals Mandy’s fate, but Cosmatos has the grace to make us feel the weight of the moment – it’s the apex of the film, the reason Mandy has its name. Mandy’s laugh cements her as the driving power of the film, and consequently, her loss entirely justifies its second half’s lack of tether. The break in Jeremiah’s “delusional self-image” is possible because Mandy, with her creative inner world and her meaningful, intimate relationships with her partner and to her surroundings, understands herself – it makes her strong. While all the men who surround her have identities that shift and wane, as if swaying towards or against her, Mandy’s strength is her immutability.

In the aftermath of brutal violence, the end of the film resurfaces memories, and understands the power they hold. A flashback, the only one in the film, shows Mandy and Red’s first meeting, and highlights the depth of their connection: the world around them slows, everyone around them fades away. They’re even wearing the same shirt. It’d feel like a cliché if the film had held back on romantic cinematic tropes until then. You understand Mandy and Red as a couple because of their casual intimacy. You believe them because their late-night conversations in bed are about their favourite planets, because the first thing we hear Red say in the film is a dumb joke about CHiPs, tailor-made to make Mandy smile. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is mesmerising, never more so than at the end of the film, when the ending music recalls the film’s love theme. Its notes – lilting, romantic, yet also melancholic, slightly unnerving – become another layer of painful memory. It breaks my heart a little more every time I hear it. This flashback is essential, a glimpse into a beautiful past that stands in for a future that can never be.

After the credits, a secret image appears: a collection of hand-drawn sketches, featuring Red and other fantasy imagery that exists in the film. Remnants of a life, the drawings stand as a final affirmation that Mandy’s fingerprints are all over the film, staining it pink and red and imbuing it with despair and with hope. Mandy effectively drags us along a violent and explosive journey to confront us with the reality of uneasy, unresolved grief, but its ending is a gift. It’s a reminder that what once mattered still matters, that feelings live on, and that there’s a transcendent power to weaving your love into your art, giving it the grace to live on beyond.