mandy macaroni and cheese scene

About an hour into director Panos Cosmatos‘ Mandy, something horrible happens. Something so horrible that it breaks Red Miller’s mind. A few scenes later, he is retrieving his long-stashed crossbow from the trailer of a friend, smelting his own homemade battle axe, and driving into a hazy, drug-laced fantasia where the laws of reality have ceased to apply on a mission of vengeance.

But first, he watches a macaroni and cheese commercial. And it may be the most important moment in the movie. It may be the best movie scene of 2018.

Major spoilers for Mandy follow.

The Descent Into Hell

For its first half, Mandy moves at a deliberate crawl. Red (Nicolas Cage) works as a lumberjack, returning home to the love of his life, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). He’s a man of few words and we learn almost nothing about him. But one thing is clear: he loves Mandy and she loves him. They talk about their favorite planets. She shares stories of a troubled childhood. He listens. He occasionally comments, but he mostly listens.

Some may find the the deliberate pacing of this first hour to be tedious, but it feels necessary. Before Red’s peace can be broken, it must be established. And then it must be poisoned.

Cage, so well-known for his bombast, speaks volumes with his silence. Red doesn’t talk and he’s happy to let Mandy do enough speaking for the both of them. Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn wisely don’t give Red and Mandy a dramatic declaration of love, nor explain how they ended up together. Their love is portrayed through stability and comfort in solitude. Their isolated country home is an oasis, their private sanctuary in a world that is otherwise portrayed as lawless.

The tracks for the back half of the film are carefully laid here. Mandy is ostensibly set in the United States in 1983, but it might as well be the wasteland of Mad Max: Fury Road or a fantastic kingdom like Tolkien’s Middle-earth. There are no paved roads and no institutions. There are no nearby neighbors and no figures of authority. Outside of Red and Mandy’s home is a dangerous wilderness, a terrible landscape drawn from folklore and myth. To go outside is to face death and danger. To stay inside is to be with Mandy. To be with the person who allows this world, this undefined, dream-like land that exists in an reality adjacent to our own, to make some sense.

But evil invades Red’s sanctuary. A cult leader named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) sees Mandy through the window of his van and decides that he must own her. He must possess her. So he summons a demonic biker gang using a seemingly mystical conch (because once again, Mandy is more fantasy than it is reality in any sense) and with his cenobite-inspired muscle by his side, he restrains Red, drugs Mandy, and attempts to woo her to his line of thinking.

She refuses. She laughs in his face. So Sand burns her to death in front of Red. And Red, his mouth and wrists restrained with barbed wire, watches helplessly. He is destroyed. He is ruined. Fire has consumed the one element of his life that makes sense, the one aspect of his existence that allows him to have the shape of a human being.

But wait, weren’t we talking about a macaroni and cheese commercial? Yes. Yes, we were. But now you remember Red Miller’s pain. You remember what broke his mind. And now we’re ready to talk about the Cheddar Goblin. And there are two reasons this is the best movie scene of 2018.

It Gives You Permission to Laugh

By this point in Mandy, you can be forgiven for being worn out. Cosmatos is ruthless with momentum, or lack thereof. Characters speak slowly or not at all. They look at each other with longing and loathing. They stare into the lens and into our eyes. Faces overlap during extended exchanges, robbing us of the relief of a cut, of a reaction shot. We are lulled into a sick, unpleasant vibe, a creeping sense of dread that climaxes with a terrifying act of violence. It’s the first shocking moment in a film that has been dancing around pure horror.

We are as worn-out as Red when he sees the commercial. We are as beaten, as tired, as broken, as this man. The physical act of watching Mandy‘s first half places us in Red’s head – his distinct lack of character, of dialogue, makes him a surrogate. He is us and we are him. We feel his pain.

So Red Miller, fresh from seeing the love of his life burnt to death by a vile cult leader, fresh from freeing himself from restraints made of barbed wire, stumbles into his home and sees a commercial for Cheddar Goblin Macaroni and Cheese, complete with an outlandish puppet mascot who is grotesque and adorable in that practical, ’80s Gremlins and E.T. way. It is ridiculous. It is silly. It feels just accurate enough to commercials of its kind and era to feel weirdly authentic.

And it is hilarious. What else would you expect from a grotesque and weird faux ’80s commercial made by Casper Kelly, the director behind the viral sensation Too Many Cooks?

You may feel like it’s inappropriate to laugh. You may feel like this was a wrongheaded choice for such an emotionally charged and draining sequence. But Cosmatos is a child of ’80s VHS weirdness and he worships at the altar of gonzo cinema, movies that zig brazenly when so many others zag comfortably. This is him giving you permission to laugh. This is Cosmatos telling you “Yes, Mandy is deliberately funny and it’s okay to laugh, even when things get uncomfortably dark.”

This moment made it clear that everyone who wants to see Mandy should at least attempt to see it in a theater if possible – the wave of laughter, of pure relief, from my audience was like a gentle rain after a death march through the desert. We needed this. We needed the joke. We needed a break. And we shared in it together.

The back of half of Mandy is the polar opposite of its first hour. The pacing picks up to the point where there is seemingly too much movie in this movie – it threatens to burst at the seams with violence and gore and relentless insanity, all of which was kept bubbling under the surface in the opening half. And yeah, it’s funny. Cage is funny. Some of the violence is funny. The outrageous escalation of events, including a scene where a drug manufacturer reads Red’s mind using the power of LSD (or something!) and unleashes his pet tiger, is funny. Don’t take this too seriously, Mandy says. This movie is punishing, but it is very aware that it is a heavy metal odyssey where a lumberjack transforms into a leather armor-wearing warrior who gets in a chain saw fight with a henchman in a quarry from Hell.

Mandy is a lot of things. And self-aware is one of them. The Cheddar Goblin commercial is the one and only time Mandy winks, but it is enough.

It Reminds You That the Universe Doesn’t Give a Shit About Your Grief

But more importantly, the commercial is wholly out of place. It does not belong at this moment. It is a big laugh in a scene where a character’s entire universe has crumbled into ash. It’s a cold reminder of something most movies, even “realistic” dramas, fail to note: the universe doesn’t care that you’re hurting. The universe does not care that you’ve just had the wind knocked out of your soul. The world does not pause because you’re in pain.

Sometimes, a cult burns your beloved to death and you go inside and find a cheesy macaronic and cheese commercial on the television. And because you’re so broken, because you have forgotten how to be a person, all you can do is stare at it. This commercial did not set out to mock you, to mock your pain, to make light of monsters, but here it is, doing just that.

This scene reminded me of another film about the overwhelming power of grief. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea couldn’t be more different from Mandy, but both films are obsessed with how loss breaks and changes a person. And both films feature a scene where the universe kicks the lead character when he’s at his lowest. In Mandy, Red Miller has to watch the world’s stupidest commercial when he’s in the worst pain of his life. In Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler has to watch paramedics fumble with a faulty gurney carrying the remains of his family, one final insult to his pain. (To complete the trilogy of the greatest movies about grief released in the past decade, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is required viewing.)

But while Manchester by the Sea examines its lead’s grief from a removed distance, Mandy gives us an out-of-control ride in Red Miller’s broken brain. We hitchhike in his psychosis. Because right after this commercial, Red breaks down, chugging booze in the bathroom, moaning and screaming and falling apart. It’s a scene destined to be seen by many out-of-context on YouTube (another patented Nicolas Cage Freaks Out meme), but within the film, it has a chilling power. Cage is not being bombastic for the sake of playing up his persona. He’s unleashing an emotional reaction that most actors would be afraid to portray, the kind of overwhelming grief that doesn’t look slick and isn’t easy to watch. Cage lets Red break down in a manner so raw and humiliating that it’s almost impossible to watch.

Because the universe doesn’t let everyone brood like a badass. Sometimes they bawl like a child and moan like a maniac. And sometimes, the death of their beloved is quickly followed by a bad commercial for macaroni and cheese. Grief is embarrassing. It’s unpredictable. And Cage and Cosmatos (the latter understanding each and every one of the former’s strengths and playing to them) force that hilarious and uncomfortable feeling on us.

Mandy begins as a bad dream, but it’s here that it escalates into a nightmare, a vision of hell constructed specifically around Red’s fears. From here, the film transforms into a live-action heavy metal album cover, a psychedelic voyage of revenge that reminds us that we’ve been overusing “trippy” and applying it to anything remotely odd instead of saving it for the movies that earn the word. In its back half, Mandy lives up to its poster and synopsis, offering hyper-violent fights, disturbing imagery of Red’s world transforming into a red-tinged, stormy Hell, and Cage exacting vengeance with brutal ferocity. It is initially cathartic. And then it is empty, with Red alone in a car, lost in his own private hell, left with only his memories of a life that is gone forever. Mandy‘s style is its substance, a surreal and disconcerting adventure that places us squarely in the mindset of its grief-stricken protagonist. His nightmare is our own. The hell he wanders through is what it is like to exist within his mind.

And the universe remains as unforgiving as ever. It gave him a macaroni and cheese commercial when he needed it least.

***

Mandy is currently in limited release and available for rental on the VOD service of your choice.

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