And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28
I spend a great deal of my time contemplating the concept of vice. So much of human life is dedicated to the enactment or enabling of daily vices that help us get through our day to day lives. Sometimes they’re as simple as a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine after work. Sometimes it’s going out with friends or seeing a movie. Often though our vices go beyond the mundane into the realm of spiritual destruction as sex abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, and the numerous other coping mechanisms we use to dull down the pain of life overtaking us and gain a life of our own. When this happens the quality of our life begins to decay and we slowly drain ourselves of our spirituality and joy. Life becomes a vicious cycle of addiction and numbness.
I’m meditating on this thought now because today marks the home media release of one of the most critically acclaimed and wonderfully bizarre films that 2018 has offered us. Mandy, by sophomore director Panos Cosmatos, has become the breakout independent hit of the year. If you haven’t heard of Panos then you probably aren’t familiar with his directorial debut film Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) which largely slipped under the radar for U.S. audiences. More people are probably familiar with his father George P. Cosmatos who brought us classics like Tombstone, Cobra, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. That said it’s unlikely that Panos will have problems with getting attention going forward.
Mandy is an absolute spectacle of filmmaking. It starts out as a deliberately paced trippy mood piece with some of the most beautiful cinematography of any film this year before gradually and radically transforming into an over-the-top horror-action film where Nicolas Cage battles demons, forges a silver axe, snorts cocaine off a knife, and proceeds to murder his way through an insane religious cult. The movie runs the emotional gamut of melancholy, grief, suspense, laughter, and finally, unadulterated indulgent joy as Cage’s journey guides us through every possible emotion Cage can possibly portray. He’s not just doing his normal one-note style of acting either entirely stoic or entirely off the wall insane. Cage is letting the movie emotionally drag him from one end of his skill set to another and the journey is riveting to watch.
While Mandy is certainly enjoyable merely as a cinematic experience there’s certainly a major lesson to walk away with. As indulgent as the film is I don’t think it’s being irresponsible with its portrayal of indulgence. At the heart of this movie I believe is a soul very dedicated to exposing the degree indulgence and vice can escalate to the point where it destroys us and the people around us. For the characters in this film, vice takes many forms. The titular Mandy is a woman who loves drowning herself in daydreaming and fantasy novels. The cult leaders are religious in nature but they indulge in psychedelic drugs, music, and all of their worship is ultimately in service of the cult leader’s ego. For Nicolas Cage’s character Red Miller, the vice he embraces is the love of his wife. He loves Mandy and holds her as the one source of company and relief he can find in his difficult working-class job as a lumberjack.
Besides his job he really doesn’t have anything else in his life worth justifying his existence. Thus later in the film when the cult takes over his revenge quest against them becomes the sole object of his obsession to the point where he clearly loses his mind and reality around him starts to break down to the point where he becomes trapped in his fantasies. By the end of the story, those who haven’t died as a result of the vices of others are so ensnared in their own that they’re lost to the world.
As Christians, we can attest to the fact that the world as we know it isn’t satisfactory. Biologically all creatures are of course wired to want basic necessities but life is cursed with greater more profound longings for love, satisfaction, and meaning. Classical theists would recognize this as C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire. As he says in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Yet the mundanity of life is often its most crushing aspect. To quote comedian Owen Benjamen, “There is no God at the DMV.” To turn to Lewis again, we see this presented in The Screwtape Letters wherein the greatest tools of temptation end up being mere boredom and pettiness.
Mandy presents us with an entire line of vices: drugs, sex, music, love, egotism, faith, and vengeance. It shows a world of hopelessness and sadness that these characters numb themselves to the point that they ultimately start lashing out at others. Yet that hope is there too. One of the film’s more fascinating lines of dialog is a discussion between Red and Mandy about their favorite planets. These two sad souls are figuratively the creatures Lewis described looking out to another world. That is where their hopes and dreams lie.
As desperate as Mandy seems to suggest vice can degrade you, The Bible doesn’t treat every vice as a sin. Love, sex, and alcohol are explicitly given to humans as gifts to help make life more wonderful and joyous. Yet in the hands of fallen men and women, these things become conduits of addiction, abuse, violence, and moral and spiritual decay. In a sense religion, itself could be considered a vice broadly speaking. Vice becomes a problem when it detaches us from reality and numbs us to what we need. Our hopes must lie in a better world after this one. We mustn’t be blind nor numb to the world. There are justice and hope in the world, just not here. We can live lives of Christian virtue and loving kindness and still enjoy the pleasures of this world but it’s important that we know how.