It's reckless as hell to say, after the man has made a grand total of two feature films separated by eight years, that Panos Cosmatos is one of my favorite active filmmakers. It's reckless to assume he even is active in any meaningful sense, or that his two extant films will be joined by a third at any point. But Mandy is the kind of film that encourages a certain recklessness, and also film reviews that involve a whole lot of personal statements - even knowing that it has been generally well-received by critics ever since its celebrated premiere at Sundance in 2018, it seems impossible that anybody else could actually like this film that was so obviously made for me and me alone.

In pretty much every objective way, this fails to resemble Cosmatos's 2010 debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow, but the two films share something: an ethos, maybe we could call it, or a at least an aesthetic preoccupation. Basically, both films use certain stylistic elements of late-'70s/early-'80s pop culture (but not the same elements) and certain obvious, overdone genre film plot points (ditto), and combine these things into a feature film whose primary interest is in neither the style nor the plot, but in something close to pure sensual affect. With Beyond the Black Rainbow, it was all about the confluence of dreadfully static uncanniness and dreamy psychedelia, and it was great - but Mandy is greater still, throwing away every drop of stillness and slowness and going for pure quantity. The film is somewhere between a prog album cover come to life and a metal album cover come to life, and subscribes to both genre's artistic tendency towards maximalism: what it ends up being is basically naught else but two glorious hours of being pounded by bold colors (mostly in the red-violent end of the spectrum, through some greens put in notably important appearances), aggressive cutting that frequently favors impact over continuity, disorienting video effects, and above all, the unrelenting blast of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson's final musical score, an almost non-stop wave of metal-flavored variations of typical film cues raised to the very top of the sound mix and set loose as a barrage that enters your body through your sternum more than through your ears. Cosmatos has talked about the film as being a "rock opera without songs", and that's true in the narrow sense that there are no production numbers and no lyrics (it's also true in the expansive sense that the whole thing is robust and ludicrous and violent and big in a very Jim Steinmaniacal way). But it also risks making it seem like rock music isn't the thing primarily fueling this, and for a properly generous definition of "rock music", that implication simply doesn't hold up at all. It has the bombast, the sense of sound as a physical object rather than an art form; it has the raging emotions of the most brutally essentialist sort; it has a giant chrome battle-axe.

The film has movements rather than acts, and it conveniently labels them for us, in title cards that reflect the content in font and color alike. "The Shadow Mountains, 1983", introduces us to Red Miller (Nicholas Cage), a logger, and Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), a cashier by day and artist by night. Their dreamy reverie in a natural world soaked in bright colors has a sort of dreamy, pot-smoked proggy vibe, and it lasts only until they meet "The Children of the New Dawn" in the second segment, a cocaine jag of startling magenta hell and droning ambient tones as the couple ends up on the wrong side of a cult led by the throughly uncharismatic charismatic preacher Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a deadly combination of hippie Jesus freak and psychotic who believes himself to be Jesus. Finally, the film arrives at "Mandy", a title appearing in a riot of branching lines so messy that it barely registers as lettering at all, a perfect intro to the heavy metal nightmare of a rage-fueled bender.

Throughout, there's a story, if we really want to bother about it, and there are character arcs and emotional states to go along with it, though really it's only the last of these that matters. Mandy is all about the immediate impact of imagery and sound, and so what it is best at - aye, in best rock opera fashion - is expressing strong, primitive emotions in overwhelming bursts of form. It would be spoiling the film to give away all of its tricks, though it would also be impossible to spoil a film so very much about sensory overload rather than appreciating a narrative; anyway, the best moments include a perfectly unnerving, dazzling effect where Sand attempts to use his messianic powers to compel a drugged, captive Mandy into having sex with him, and Roache's face smoothly dissolves into Riseborough's, and back, and back again, and so on for a really superbly long while. It's by no means a new effect, but the execution is faultless, and the creation of a queasy, imperceptible blurring between the psycho and his prey, like a cobra that keeps appearing as a mouse, creates a phenomenal sense of visceral uncanny panic. Or a wonderful scene of Red alone in a bathroom, attempting to bury himself in a bottle of vodka, in a single take that goes on a good three minutes or more as Cage keeps modulating exactly how much rage, sorrow, and basic chemically-induced mania are oozing out of his sweaty, bloody body, while cinematographer Benjamin Loeb's camera shifts uncertainly around in the eye-searing orange room, almost tangibly unsure whether it's scarier to be close to Red or farther away.

That is, of course, one of the film's secret weapons: Cage hasn't been this well-used in a film since 2009's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, and that's even more of a convenient terminus ad quem than my actual guess for when he was last this good. Hell, maybe he's never been as good as he in this film, which takes the Cage of the popular imagination - enormous eyes above shiny bared teeth in a face covered in blood - and lets the actor remain dialed up for nearly the entire running time (to be fair, "The Shadow Mountains, 1983" boasts a much more sedate Cage than what will follow). It's almost typage more than acting - though it's fucking great typage (Riseborough too, though she of course has less of a set persona to draw from and so is compelled to give more of a lived-in performance; she's great) - but given the very nearly Expressionist bent of the film, marshaling every element of style into the creation of overpowering mood states, it seems exactly right like the lead performance would exist as a series of extreme facial expressions and poses, communicating extremes of emotion rather than anything subtle, nuanced, and human. This is decidedly weird but in its very idiosyncratic way completely enjoyable, particularly as it's injected with snarky dark humor by Cage's effect underdelivery of Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn's straitlaced campy dialogue (humor turns out to be one of the film's surprising strengths: Cage's flat delivery of ridiculous pronouncements, Bill Duke's similarly understated one-scene cameo, a television commercial that's both hilarious and hugely repulsive). The film is all about big sweeping gestures, primary-color emotions, pure raging adolescent anguish; to cut this all with a genuinely subtle, dry sense of humor is exactly the grace note it takes to push Mandy the last little way into pure genius. It is so very much not for all tastes, but I can't remember the last film more precisely tailored to mine.