When Mandy had its theatrical run in 2018, it played at the Edmonds Theater, a cozy one-screen cinemas , old-fashioned with old-fashioned style (it opened in 1924!). It features crowdpleasers for a community of mainstream tastes — most weeks, you’ll find a Disney movie, a Marvel movie, or a film that’s an Oscar-nominee for Best Picture.

It’s about a ten-minute drive from my home, at the center of a neighborhood made up of middle- to upper-class families and retirees. Although it’s far too pricey for me live there, it’s full of evangelical Christians: I hear the words “Bible study” and “prayer meeting” almost every time I sit down to work in one of the local coffee shops. I see more evidence of right-wing extremism here than in most other Seattle-area communities: Across from the Theater you’ll find a bakery that sells heart-shaped cookies that say “Build the Wall” on them, just a few blocks from a house that has only two distinctions: the “Hillary for Prison” signs in the windows, and the security fence that shouts warnings about the house’s security surveillance systems.

This isn’t a judgment of the neighborhood: While I’ll never spend a penny at a bakery that flaunts hatred toward the brown-skinned neighbors I love, I know some wonderful families that live here who have bigger, warmer hearts than the racist baker and the Hate House resident. And hey, it has the best cafes for writers within easy reach of my home.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what I would have seen if I’d looked out over the Edmonds audience on the week that Mandy played here. That must have been something.

Yes, that’s Nicolas Cage as Red Miller, wreaking revenge with an axe by firelight. (Credit: RLJE Films)

Let me try to describe Mandy for you: Take LSD, listen to ’80s heavy metal at an earsplitting volume, and imagine Nicolas Cage, at his most manic, playing Red Miller, a broken-hearted avenger, wildly intoxicated, and questing to bring down holy hell — with guns, knives, axes, and chainsaws — on villains who have set his heart on fire. That’ll get you started in imagining what awaits you in this blood-soaked fever dream by director Panos Cosmatos.

Though there are moments of absurd humor, the movie is never very funny. Though there is severe and gore-soaked violence, I wouldn’t really call this an “action movie.” For all of its excesses, it moves slowly and ponderously as if it has big ideas on its mind — but it doesn’t really. It’s just grim, dire, and relentless. It seems to want us to share its hellbent hero’s grief, but the film’s first hour is so perpetually and absurdly exaggerated that I found myself detached from the film, somewhat curious about its wild style, annoyed and eventually oppressed by its zeal to revel in bloodshed,

Here’s the bloody scoop: It’s 1983. Red and his lover Mandy live in isolation, deep in the woods, like that doomed family in Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Mandy likes it there — she can wander around in her Black Sabbath t-shirt, read pulp-y fantasy novels, and paint imagery in the style of old fantasy paperbacks and early ’80s heavy metal album covers. (It’s that very specific kind of pulpy fantasy-novel kitsch that you sometimes see on t-shirts, posing flamboyantly naked women against images of eagles and mountain lions.) Red clearly worships her and finds something meaningful in her art — it’s good that somebody does, I guess. He comes home from hard days of forestry to adore her, to stand slack-jawed before her artwork, and to ride Mandy’s rollercoasters of conversation from the playful (“What’s your favorite planet?”) to the disturbing (“My father taught us to kill baby birds!”).

Yes, that’s Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), enjoying another paperback in her deep-forest hideaway. (Credit: RLJE Films)

But Red is uneasy with their remote hideaway. He has a premonition that it might not be the safest place, and we know he’s right. In the deep, dark woods of independent cinema, nobody can hear you scream except the audience, and they’re probably murmuring “Get out of there! Get out of there!”

And there are monsters in these woods. More specifically, there’s a cult roiling around a self-proclaimed I’m-Better-Than-Jesus messiah: Jeremiah (Linus Roache, committed fully — and full-frontally — to this madness). His entourage is made up of a bunch of dangerous idiots who resemble expendable bad guys from leftover Twin Peaks episodes. Apparently altered by botched batches of drugs, these willing disciples have dedicated themselves to appeasing Jeremiah’s insatiable appetite for  appetites for psychotropic drugs, sex slaves, and Hard-R-rated blood. (The movie’s promotion has made its simplistic revenge plot clear, although Red doesn’t have a reason to wreak bloody havoc until almost an hour into the movie.)

And, yes, that’s Satanic cult-leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache) and two of his true believers.

Long-but-predictable story short, Jeremiah will dismember Red and Mandy’s bliss. Red will lose his mind, turn his Nic Cage-ness up to ’11,’ and “get medieval’ on his enemies (to borrow a phrase from Tarantino, who probably loves this movie). But before Red can punish the cult, he will have to round up some weapons — including a chainsaw and a gun called The Reaper and an axe that looks like a prop from Game of Thrones — and fight his way through a biker gang who are quite Medieval themselves, a Satanic militia who look like hybrids of villains from Mad Max and the the Black Knight from Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Along the way, Red will be battered and beaten, punctured by blades and the stinger of a creepy crawly critter, numbed by alcohol, supercharged by illegal substances, tormented by dreams animated in a style that recalls (yes) Bakshi’s Heavy Metal, and baptized in carnage.

I’m not going to avoid spoilers in what I say next, so if this movie sounds like something you need to see, well… depart now, do you what you must do, but don’t tell anybody I sent you. If you want my detailed, spoiler-ish opinion, then here it is: I recommend that you steer clear of Mandy.

Here’s why:

Our hero on the warpath. (Credit: RLJE Films)

When the blood-soaked hero finally fights his way past all of the guardians, faces his ultimate foe, and prepares to commit the aforementioned eye-for-an-eye “justice,” I’m still trying to understand just what kind of confrontation I’m watching. Red marches out to face villains who have been described as hippies and “Jesus freaks.” Does he represent some kind of political conservative? Early in the film, we find him listening to President Reagan speechify about morality. But his enemies don’t look like liberals, exactly: It’s easy to see Jeremiah, the stark-raving-mad villain, as an avatar of the Trump-Supporting Conservative Evangelical Christian, a fascistic misogynist who openly rejects the Jesus of the Gospels in favor of a self-serving faith characterized in the midst of an all-white community.

Mandy has a lot of midnight-movie fans, and they’re going to think I’m taking this too seriously. This is a film about style, not substance, they’ll say. And I don’t deny that it’s an ambitious and imaginative endeavor, aesthetically. Those who celebrate its distinctive qualities — its wild color schemes, fantastical imagery, the Johann Johanssen score that wants us to experience the hallucinogenic highs of its hero and villains, and the enthusiastic performances of Cage and Roache — are responding to powerful stuff.

A shiny tool for a dirty business. (Credit: RLJE Films)

So it might seem silly to go looking for meaning in a movie meant to live on as a midnight-movie cult classic — but the movie’s overbearing ponderousness seems to insist on its own importance scene by overblown scene. What — or who — are we supposed to be rooting for? If I may bring up my favorite question to ask at the beginning of a post-movie discussion: What does this movie love? Not the megalomaniacal devil who kidnaps women, drugs them, and directs them to fulfill his oh-so-unimaginative sexual demands in front of a live audience. No, obviously not him. But are we then to empathize with the aggrieved avenger charging headlong into war with his arsenal of instruments designed for cruelty?

Let’s face it: This is a movie that celebrates the intoxicating adrenaline rush of embracing  Trump’s favorite Bible verse: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” That is, of course, an ethic that Jesus himself specifically overrules and replaces. For all of this film’s impressively purposeful over-indulgence, for all of its efforts to make us laugh at its Antichrist Villain, it has no answer for evil except another two hours of graphic vigilante justice.

In an era characterized by increasing violence, lawlessness, toxic tribalism, and leaders openly campaigning on messages of fear and hate, I find revenge movies that revel in, and invite us to revel in, the vivid desecration of human bodies to be dangerous. They worry me. Audiences are goaded here to take pleasure in, to cheer for, the dismemberment of human bodies, and to accept Red’s quest for blood as a solution for evil. This must be one of the Devil’s favorite tricks: to get us to embrace the very tactics that wounded us and ignited our anger in the first place. While Mandy is so absurdly over the top as to be frequently hilarious, it is also designed to indulge “wants and needs” that run directly counter to Conscience.

I’ve checked Mandy off my list of Movies I Should Probably See Because of Their Cult-Classic Status.

But no, never again.

What a failure of imagination.