Mandy: A Microcosm of Ideological War
That American black-and-white version of war, where enemies can be neatly grouped together, doesn’t exist post World War II. Starting with the Korean war, America has been engaged in ideological wars that keep vague the image of the enemy. From Communism and our need to fight the spread of it, to today’s terrorist threat, bred out of modern day holy wars. Fighting a concept rather than a clear cut enemy allows for war to continue indefinitely–the so-called menace may be crushed in one area, but the threat can always spring up somewhere else.
At first glance, the movie Mandy (2018) might not seem like it’s covering deeper ground than the standard “revenge for the slaying of loved one” narrative. It certainly can be read that way: a man named Red (Nicholas Cage) is witness to the gruesome death of his wife, who is murdered because she refused to go along with the wishes of a crazed cult leader, and avenges her. Plenty of people might argue that that’s all the movie is, and further attempts to add another layer of meaning are silly. But there are too many small moments that point to a larger picture–to ignore all those feels like ignoring a richer, intentional subtext about a culture of aggression, clashes of ideologies, and a world that demands we all remain in a state of fear.
Let’s start with Cage’s Red. In the beginning of the movie, we’re told that this takes place in the early eighties. Red first appears leaving his job as a clear-cutter (keep that in mind, we’ll circle back to it), and he is returned to his incredibly peaceful homelife via helicopter. Much of the first imagery we see recalls newsreel scenes from the Vietnam War: haggard men being airlifted out of a “savage” landscape they were sent to “tame”, close-ups on faces struck with the thousand yard stare. Red’s return home is a quiet moment filled with gratitude to be back, but his face still holds tension and his eyes retain trauma. I present to you the start of my theory that is character is a Vietnam vet.
Vietnam is arguably the most controversial war in American history. It’s hard to narrow it down to just one because America loves her some wars (sorry, police actions) but Vietnam has gone down as a failure that cost countless lives and destroyed the mental state of those lucky enough to survive it. In his book Kill Anything That Moves, author Nick Turse covers case after case of young men being told in no uncertain terms that everyone’s the enemy and no one deserves mercy. A portion of these young men returned to the United States after their tours of duty and set themselves on the enormous task of holding the officers in charge responsible. Court documents and transcripts of testimonies from drafted soldiers prove just how deeply scarred and repulsed these men were; whether it was from something they saw or something they themselves did. Unsurprisingly, the officers responded that these men were simply too fragile and ugliness in war is just part of the whole package. They were unable to imagine a world where men weren’t ask to fight and kill. They would maintain throughout trials that they did nothing beyond the pale.
In Mandy, we see several different reactions and versions of toxic masculinity. The titular character is killed because of it, Red is broken because of it, and the cult leader Jeremiah who causes all the problems is entitled and has an easily bruised ego because of it. He sees Mandy in passing and decides that he wants her. To him, there’s no question of autonomy or her own choices; his desires are the only thing he considers. Jeremiah is undoubtedly based on Charles Manson, and one of Manson’s main tenets was that men were superior, and white men even more superior than men of any other ethnicity. Like the systematic dehumanization soldiers spoke of during training, people like the character of Jeremiah and real life Manson bolstered the idea of lesser humans–be they women, non-white, or someone they considered disposable.
To move forward with this theory, you need to come with me on the idea that Jeremiah is a stand-in for capitalism and the sheer hubris that goes hand-in-hand with it. Manson, for all his talk of being free of the system, wanted to be rich and famous more than anything. These men that manage to dupe people into following them make wild claims about being “above it all,” despite ample evidence to the contrary. Jeremiah speaks sagely to Mandy after forcibly drugging her as he tries to persuade her to be with him sexually and as a disciple. Mandy’s response is beautifully condescending laughter, which leads Jeremiah to order his followers to kill her. He is the child of a capitalist world, one that tells men specifically that they deserve what they want and should do what they need to do to achieve it. Jeremiah, in fact, claims that he was told directly by God to take what he needed and that all things were his. Compare him to a character like Red, who wants a calm, comfortable life and comes across as humble through most of the film. Couple this juxtaposition of characters with the opening voiceover of Reagan discussing the American economy and a semi-obvious thematic thread starts to make its appearance.
Jeremiah’s followers kill Mandy by burning her alive like firebombed villagers and napalmed jungles. After Red is able to free himself, he stumbles back into the house and is greeted by a blaring TV commercial featuring a creature called Cheddar Goblin dumping macaroni and cheese all over children’s heads. While some believe this to be a simple moment of levity, there is a grotesqueness to the whole thing that supports the idea of a world swamped by its own consumerism. The Cheddar Goblin promises more, more, more: more taste, more cheese, more than you need! Children in the commercial are being literally covered with food and manically laughing. Red stares at the TV and blankly repeats the words “Cheddar Goblin” to himself. In another context, Red would have joked with Mandy about how ridiculous commercials are then changed the channel. But here, with his thousand yard stare, he sees a small portion of a bigger structure. This is our culture; this is what we sent people to fight and die for. The spread of communism couldn’t be allowed because capitalists thought it evil, but a climate of never being satisfied and demanding more than you need is fine. In fact, let’s get that thought into your head when you’re a child.
Following the Cheddar Goblin scene, Red locks himself in the bathroom and proceeds to dig around in a linen drawer until he finds a hidden bottle of vodka. Earlier in the movie, we see Red refuse a beer offered by one of his co-workers. Many Vietnam vets, and vets in general, returned with serious drug and alcohol problems, and a tell-tale sign of that struggle is keeping hidden caches of whichever substance is being used. In front of others and with no recent trauma, Red turns down alcohol without issue. Alone and in pain, he searches for his crutch and screams as he drinks directly from the bottle.
The next few scenes are a “gearing up for war” moment. Red visits Caruthers, a friend of his who lives in a trailer and wears an army jacket. Caruthers has been holding onto Red’s crossbow, nicknamed “the reaper,” for undisclosed reasons. They quietly understand each other, and Caruthers provides information that he’s been able to glean from simple observation like a scout sent out into the field to gather intel. He tells Red where his enemies can be found in detail, aware as he is of the terrain and environment. These are two men whose relationship to each other is never explained, yet we as the audience know it’s longstanding. With the knowledge his friend provides, Red sets out to craft weapons and prepare for a ground war.
Now at this point in the final act of the movie, this becomes less a story about ideological war and more about the inability to escape from the systems in which we find ourselves. At one point, Red stares out over a clear-cut forest as the camera pulls out to show the scope of the destruction as well as make Red appear very small. He stands at the edge of a natural resource that the destruction of he himself takes part. While he may want to live a harmless and simple life, there is no true neutrality in this world. Merely existing puts all of us into a system that does damage, that consumes, that cares little for the morals we as individuals have crafted. Red witnesses the system that molded the mindset of the man who murdered his wife in the same moment that he realizes his place within it.
Since the final act centers on Red getting revenge we can skip the slaughtering of the accomplices and focus two pivotal scenes: the meeting with The Chemist (Richard Brake of 31 fame) and the death of Jeremiah. Red meeting the Chemist is akin to a look behind the veil; he is the orchestrater of all this chaos, and like an indifferent god, he offers words but no comfort. Without a hint of judgement, he says Red has a dark cosmic energy and provides him with information on the whereabouts of Jeremiah. Like Red surveying the remnants of what was once a forest, the Chemist is faced with the physical evidence of his effect on the world. Unlike Red, the Chemist seems to be of a truly neutral mindset and appears unperturbed by what’s facing him. Between characters built out of suffering and the desire for simplicity and villains propped by unabashed selfishness, he is a calm center in the middle of everything; a catalyst who knows his influence and accepts it as inevitable.
With the penultimate scene, we have the inevitable confrontation between Red and Jeremiah, the clash of ideologues playing out its conclusion. Jeremiah’s beliefs contain a self-appointed mandate of heaven as he maintains his righteousness up to the bitter end. His death at the literal hands of Red is gruesome and overtly symbolic: he collapses his knees in front of Red moments before Red gouges his eyes out with his thumbs. Jeremiah is a man (system, ideologue) that falters under his own delusions. He is ultimately at the mercy of those from whom he’s stolen.
It’s entirely possible to watch Mandy as a straightforward revenge tale and to enjoy it as such but there are a lot of small hints and additions included that point to a larger picture. It’s not uncommon for horror and fantastical movies to use reality as a springboard and to craft narratives around these ideas. To me, Mandy saying more than just ‘this is vengeance looks like.’ It is a reminder of where we find ourselves within a system and of how we react in the face of trauma, violence, and pain.