Writer-director Michael Pearce was born and raised in Jersey, and studied Film Directing at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth and the National Film & Television School, where his graduation film, Madrugada, won Best Short at The Royal Television Society Awards. His next short film, Rite, was nominated at the 2011 BAFTAs and BIFAs, and his 2013 short Keeping Up with the Joneses was nominated at the 2014 BAFTAs and BIFAs. In 2013 Michael was selected to be part of Channel 4’s Coming Up scheme, through which he made Henry, his debut TV drama. His debut feature, Beast, starring Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is in theaters through Roadside Attractions from May 11.
There’s a scene in Mandy where Nicolas Cage’s revenge-fueled character, Red, breaks the neck of a biker-gang demon then snorts a mound of cocaine with a broken shard of glass. On both occasions I’ve seen the film – once at a midnight screening at Sundance, and once at the Prince Charles Cinema in London – the packed audiences deliriously yelped, whooped and clapped at this moment. Not just a few people, but practically the whole theater.
And it’s not the only scene in the film that arouses collective audible feedback from the audience. It’s densely packed with them. The film is by turns poignant, tragic, absurd, shocking and phantasmagorical. Quite how it pulls off so many tones whilst retaining such a unique and hermetic atmosphere is a testament to Panos Cosmatos’ wizardry and sincerity as a filmmaker. Sincerity might not seem like the most apt description for a film which appears, at a distance, like a grindhouse B-movie nostalgia piece. But when you watch it, there’s no doubt it’s been created by someone who has a profound love for the medium, is a bewitching aesthetician and has a genuine empathy for his characters. He’s made a film which has the audacity to be playful and the courage to be heartfelt. A rare feat in my book, and rarer still to actually pull it off.
The film’s strength isn’t its emotional world – you could fairly argue it’s quite thin on character and operates more on the level of archetypes and story tropes (one of the oldest – the avenging widower). But using these allows Cosmatos to mainline into our very primal dreams and fears. The best metaphor I can think for this is in music – the use of power chords in heavy metal, or the 4/4 beat in techno. They’re ubiquitous and kind of elementary, but they also provoke immediate and visceral reactions within us, which creates an awesome canvas to build upon. You could argue all B-movies do this – push the “simple” emotional buttons, but they’re not made with such artistry, panache and ambition in every department. In fact, the film is so enchanting that it induces a semi-hallucinatory state. You get high from it, from the intensity of the performances, from Jóhann Jóhannsson’s transcendental score, from the textural sound design and the lush and mythic imagery. So for its boldness, charm and complimentary high, it’s one of my favorite films of the year.