Mandy Is Metal
If you squint, Panos Cosmatos’s latest psychedelic feature is actually a lonesome martyr’s fantasy to save heavy metal from the Reagan administration’s threatening anti-pornography policies.
Please note: This piece contains spoilers for the movie Mandy—not to mention your American history textbook and, perhaps, Deafheaven’s live show.
There’s something about rolling up to a metal show after a long day at work that’s cathartic in a way few other genres can claim to be. I recently saw the Virginia doom metal group Windhand play an hour-long set of snail’s pace, ear-splitting drone to a community of like-tatted individuals, offering up a spectacle to stare deeper and deeper into with nothing but a steady nod to betray any sign of life from the enraptured audience. With several of the tracks on their latest record, Eternal Return, circling the ten-minute mark, there were few breaks in the music, a staple of the metal genre that allows for a dense mental picture to form based on the eerie, hellish motifs espoused in the barely discernible lyrics and inhuman instrumentation—not to mention the Cattle Decapitation and Cannibal Corpse tees generally modeled by such bands.
Likewise, my experience seeing Deafheaven a few months ago provided similar moments of introspection and transcendence—despite frequent interruption from the bodies being flung from one corner of the room to the other. The band’s music embodies so many emotional extremes that it’s hard to discern what you’re feeling at any given moment—only that you’re definitely feeling as much of something as humanly possible. To have “Canary Yellow” played at you is to be slammed in a velvet-clad iron maiden (to describe the feeling traversing your entire body as “pins and needles” is a vast understatement) with the opening guitar as emotionally reassuring as the most gentle post-rock denouement, and the double kick drum midway through its twelve minutes feeling like rapid-fire shots tearing apart your already-impaled—yet impossibly invincible—flesh.
In both cases, there was an indescribable feeling of an enormous hole being torn in the fabric of our physical world—unquestionably a religious experience, regardless of any pagan affiliation the band may have—in which some other plane of existence was free to aggressively spill out, a creative energy rarely accessible from other mediums or music genres. I, for one, cannot fathom this entirely unique experience being taken away from me—and I can only begin to fantasize about what forceful means I would employ to retrieve it.
In the opening moments of the 1983-set Mandy, we watch the movie’s protagonist Red (Nicolas Cage) drive home from a job where he cuts down trees in a remote California forest. We know it’s 1983 because a title card says so, but we don’t fully absorb this information until we recognize President Reagan’s voice delivering his “Evil Empire” speech on Red’s radio, assuring the American people that most of us believe in God and the Ten Commandments and denounce pornography and hard drugs. Red turns the radio off while Reagan is listing “adultery,” “teenage sex,” and “pornography” with hardly any context for those unfamiliar with the speech, leading us to believe Red has no interest in politics, a topic that never resurfaces explicitly in the film’s remaining two hours. But on some level, Mandy is a deeply political movie about Cage’s character—about you and about me—being threatened by a presidential administration to have our metal (“pornography” according to conservative Christian America; “art” according to listeners; an essential life force according to Red) stripped from us.
For this reading of Mandy to make any sense, though, it’s important to acknowledge the symbolism of certain key characters—first and foremost: Mandy. Obviously, Mandy is metal, but what I need you to understand is that the character Mandy is, in fact, an embodiment of the metal subculture rather than an actual human person. We first meet her when Red returns home from work, where he greets her lovingly and sincerely lauds the psychedelic landscape she’s sketching, which wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of most LPs within the metal universe. Additionally, she only tends to wear metal band-tees and has an affinity for fantasy novels—the ideas that heavily influence her art. Red, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have much going on outside of work. His only engagement with art is through Mandy, whose comforting presence was likely a factor in his recent sobriety. To him, an addiction to alcohol was understandably more detrimental to his health than a passion for heavy rock music.
Despite being killed off halfway through the movie, “Mandy” weaves in and out of the whole film, from the epigraph about being buried with a pair of headphones on (the last words of a convicted murderer about to be put to death in 2005) to the frankly shocking final scene of a wild-eyed Red romantically remembering what is presumably his first encounter with his partner in a bar (perhaps it was “Number of the Beast” on the jukebox?). “Mandy” is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s extremely atmospheric black metal score—not to mention the King Crimson dirge which opens the movie—and “Mandy” is Benjamin Loeb’s surreal cinematography. Both sensory details are representative of Red’s perspective, which has been informed by metal’s intricate landscapes.
Without Mandy, the only other form of media Red consumes is TV, a medium he mocks in his opening exchange with his lover and which plays mindlessly in the background of a tender scene where Mandy unburdens herself of a traumatic childhood episode (Red is mostly listening, of course). Then there’s the entirely lifeless expression Red greets his television set with upon returning home from Mandy’s execution; without metal, Red has nothing left but Cheddar Goblin and booze. He chooses booze.
Without metal, Red has nothing left but Cheddar Goblin and booze. He chooses booze.
With the film neatly divided in two by its official title card appearing just over halfway through the movie, the second act could be read as a sort of revenge fantasy—a result of Red’s cynicism of Reagan’s speech bleeding into genuine paranoia. When the cult leader Jeremiah Sand mysteriously appears near Red’s reclusive cabin, he, like Mandy, is another personification—that of Reagan, who Red increasingly begins to view as a threat to his way of life. From the death of Mandy onwards, Mandy is something of a rage fantasy that borrows structurally from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and its Lewis Carroll–inspired predecessors, in which themes of a character’s reality as established in the beginning of the film are worked out internally via the language of fantasy. Red is just as capable of slaying his enemies with the bladed instrument he uses every day at work as he is with a ridiculous battle axe that looks like it was extracted from one of Mandy’s drawings.
As far as the Jeremiah/Reagan likeness goes, Jeremiah’s revealing monologue to Mandy offers confirmation. He claims he was once a promising musician, as he puts one of his own records on the turntable, giving up on the career path once it became clear he wouldn’t go down as one of the greats. He implies that what he was looking for in music was power, which he was more easily able to attain through leading a Christian cult capable of summoning a faceless evil to do his bidding—much in the way an ultra-conservative Middle America was corralled to the polls by the reformed TV actor Reagan as a backlash to the free-love and drug-crazed liberalism of the preceding decades. As seen in the present presidential administration, it’s become perfectly clear that this demographic’s agenda in 1983 was fundamentally more intolerant and racist than protective of decency in American arts and culture, which is exactly why Sand’s evil creatures hypocritically indulge in hard drugs and pornography.
It’s always easiest to try to draw political parallels between a new movie and the current political climate, but Mandy feels pretty safely rooted in 1983. We’re not at risk of having our pornography stripped of us anymore—in fact, our current president has plenty of associations with pornographers, literal and otherwise. Instead, the movie is akin to another ’80s-set, Reagan-haunted horror film, Let Me In, which tragically reveals the irreversible effect the Cold War had on our country’s sense of trust, the resulting spike in decayed relationships, and the generation of children who grew up totally alienated as a result. While neither Let Me In nor Mandy present societal issues that are necessarily relevant today, it’s scarier to consider how their subjects have instead become ingrained in the fabric of our culture, abstract byproducts of destructive policies that will never be mentioned in any history book.
Regardless of your interpretation of Mandy, it’s a difficult movie to know how to react to appropriately; the funniest scenes always occur at the most tragic moments, while that hilarious screencap people have been sharing on social media for months now makes your skin crawl when it flashes on the screen in the movie’s final moments. In putting together this theory during my second viewing of the film that Red never, in fact, actually speaks to another living person in Mandy, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Yet when I caught Windhand play a venue packed with hundreds of enraptured Reds a week later, my ambiguous emotional state settled firmly on teary-eyed gratitude to the lonesome martyr willing to put everything on the line for his way of life—the saintly metalhead of a bygone era whose dying wish was to continue to be rocked and rolled long after he was dead. FL