Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic revenge flick Mandy positions itself as the most heavy metal movie of all time, a splurge of visuals drawn from stoner-doom and prog-rock LP artwork mixed with bloody exploitation film tropes. Its story follows a married couple, Red and the titular character (Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough), living in the woods of California’s Shadow Mountains in 1983, and how the violent disturbance of their peace leads to Red’s quest for vengeance. Though it’s a sad turn of events, it results in some extremely blessed cinematic moments, chief among them a mad-as-hell Nic Cage crossing chainsaws with a Jesus freak while tripping out on acid.
Despite these brief fits of bug-eyed energy, much of the film slowly drifts from one lengthy, druggy scene to another as though only half-conscious, with Cosmatos aiming for a hallucinatory tone similar to David Lynch or Enter the Void director Gaspar Noé. While it’s admittedly effective under the influence, the arthouse pacing occasionally hamstrings the fun supplied by the bonkers action scenes as well as the knowingly silly worldbuilding involving demonic bikers summoned via an ancient horn and Red owning a crossbow called “The Reaper.” Though confident and distinctive, Mandy would be a mess of midnight movie touchstones and ambient psychonautics if not for the guiding light of its music, especially the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score.
Jóhannsson, who died of an accidental drug overdose this past February, specialized in making the most of avant-garde composition methods and unusual timbres in his film scores. Arrival’s best-known musical motif is non-melodic, sounding like a lonely whale call echoing into a void, while the rushing strings and sparkling mallet instruments used in The Theory of Everything illustrate both the sentimental and scientific sides of Stephen Hawking’s life story. Mandy’s 80s B-movie aspirations make it tougher to soundtrack. It’d be easy to go full Kung Fury pastiche, overloading on wailing Sunset Strip guitars and arpeggiated analog synths and calling it a day. While this would be reliably rad, it’d establish an ironic detachment from the aesthetics, which Cosmatos is playing for their latent supernatural horror rather than laughing at how dated they are. That’s also not how Jóhanssonn rolled, so it’s only natural that his interpretation of metal on the film’s soundtrack—one of his final works—isn’t metal at all while also being totally metal as fuck.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t guitars everywhere, as Mandy opens with an unlisted piece that thrillingly has a Van Halen fret-tapping solo. Yet the pyrotechnics are stuck in a loop and stretched into infinity, slowly rising and falling over a single ominous synth note. Jóhannsson continues to do this throughout the pieces, emphasizing metal’s propensity for atmosphere rather than its brute force. The fluttering clean guitars in “Mandy Love Theme” could be found in the intro to an Alcest song, while the zero-gravity fuzz lines of “Burning Church” are straight out of Earth’s 90s playbook. None of these ever coalesce into full-blown riffing, and only a few pieces even have drums, meaning that Jóhanssonn mostly reconstitutes the separate parts of heavy metal into drone music. This is nothing new: Sunn O))), Boris, and the aforementioned Earth all initially gained attention by playing their guitars as low and as slow as humanly possible. The difference is that Jóhanssonn doesn’t want to achieve pure aggression or merely a sound for its own sake, he draws from drone-doom and other forms of modern, more experimental metal to represent aggression in stasis or rage and fear shaded by warmer moods.
That’s the key here: as Cosmatos says in an interview with rogerebert.com, he wanted Mandy to subvert the macho aesthetics he indulges in by constructing it around a tragic, emotional core. The issue is that his toolbox of bong-friendly dream imagery and cryptic dialogue isn’t equipped to handle the depiction of a nuanced romantic relationship and its subsequent fallout, but Jóhanssonn is able to raise those feelings of affection and sorrow from their somnolent state. Interestingly, there is little propulsion to the music, even during the action scenes. During Red’s climactic march to the final showdown, glacial doom metal riffs prevent the audience from feeling truly pumped-up. The character is broken, grief-stricken, trudging forward thanks only to his burning hatred. There was a drive at first, heard in “Forging the Beast” and its sequenced synths, but the gruesome kills and hallucinogenic drugs eventually take their toll on Red’s psyche. By the end, he’s not a badass Schwarzenegger-type smirking out pithy one-liners, he’s a hollow shell of a man. Jóhannsson makes that descent apparent with music that’s similar in approach to the funeral doom of Bell Witch, gnarly on the surface but hurting on the inside.
Fitting Cosmatos’ anti-masculine mission, Mandy dominates the movie’s first half in a way a typical action film love interest wouldn’t be allowed to, and she is also given extra depth by Jóhanssonn’s music. Mandy is mainly signified by her sighing love theme, which underscores her role as a placid, stabilizing presence for Red (and—it’s somewhat implied—for the idyllic pine forest the two live in). Yet, a significant characterization moment involves her relating a story to Red about her witnessing an act of cruelty as a child. The scene by itself is kind of drab, Riseborough directed to say the lines in an impartial monotone as the camera slowly zooms in on her subtly haunted face. But underneath the tale, Johannsson sparingly deploys nearly comically portentous analog synth dollops. Mandy never outright says she’s traumatized, but the horror-movie cue brings her inner turmoil to the forefront as an evil comic-book presence, as outsized as the Black Skulls demon biker gang seen later on. Combined with the character’s deep attachment to fantasy novels and nature, the alternatingly calm and creepy music that follows Mandy paints her as beyond human, a semi-spiritual entity capable of shaping the world around her through the love others carry for her.
Despite the score not being very melodic, rock music plays a large role in Mandy even besides the entire thing essentially being one of Frank Frazetta’s Molly Hatchet album covers come to life. The villainous hippie cult leader Jeremiah Sand is revealed to have been a failed Christian folk-rock singer, and the mocking of his hilariously narcissistic, Donovan-lite single “Amulet of the Weeping Maze” ends up as a key plot catalyst. Then there’s the pitch-perfect opening epigraph that reads like a bedtime prayer as written by Tenacious D. More than the ultra-stylized visuals, more than the brutal violence, and more than the actual words being said, the language of Mandy is music and Jóhannsson’s writing in that language is superb. He exposes the beating heart otherwise obscured by Cosmatos’ oblique style of storytelling and shows it to be a tormented vessel writhing in pain.
As good as Jóhannsson’s score is, though, it’s the one prominent licensed cue featured in Mandy that probably speaks for its tortured soul the best. An excerpt of “Starless,” the 12-minute-long closing track from King Crimson’s 1974 album Red (from which Cosmatos likely derived the name of Cage’s character), opens the movie proper and its inclusion is expert curation, making the lineage from prog to metal explicit. It also sets a much more morose tone than the film’s been advertised as having, with Robert Fripp’s regal Mellotron keyboard and the band’s jazzy sway establishing mournfulness instead of trashiness. Though some of the intent is lost in translation, the music communicates that Cosmatos’ heavy metal fantasy isn’t in service of escapism. It wallows in grief as its “hero”’s gory vendetta goes from cathartic to pathetic. It’s not really trying to be a good time, but isn’t making deeply negative feelings kind of kickass the most metal thing you can do?
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This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.