All the Boys (and Girls) Love Mandy Lane
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006, Jonathan Levine) was one of the surprises of Fantasia 2008, a straight ahead slasher film with loads of style and just enough twists to give it a fresh, contemporary flavor while remaining true to the spirit of the original slasher films. Much of what gives the film its revisionist feel is the titular character, engaging and well-written, played by then newcomer Amber Heard, who starred in mostly television shows before landing this juicy starring role. The role has served her well, helping her land roles in marquee upcoming horror films Zombieland (2009), the remake of The Stepfather (2009), and John Carpenter’s upcoming horror film, The Ward. I’m sure by the time Carpenter’s film is released some time in 2010 we’ll be hearing a lot more about Amber Heard.
What makes Lane such an intriguing character is not only her narrative importance (the film’s central twists revolve around her) but her quasi-mythic nature (aided by the film’s saturated, high contrast visual style). From the opening scenes of the film, which take place in a Texas high school, Lane is established as a Goddess untouched by human hands, a work of art coveted by the whole population of her high school, boys and girls. And it is not only the boys and girls who love Mandy Lane, but director Jonathan Levine’s camera, which frames her in gorgeously lit, slow motion close-ups with her sensuous, honey brown hair caressed by the air, her eyes looking on seductively to nowhere in particular, but knowing full well that all eyes are on her; a ‘blank’ gaze that takes in everyone. Whereas viewers can usually understand the physical or psychological needs of the usual slasher film beauty (Final Girl or victim), Lane’s emotional needs are kept obscure, vague, beyond the film’s conclusion. While the characters in her world want to claim her, the audience is kept at bay, unable to grasp her next step.
The first important narrative act occurs early on at a pool-side party, where the unpopular Emmet (Michael Welch), a platonic friend who secretly lusts over Lane, coerces school jock Dylan (Adam Powell) to leap from his rooftop home into the swimming pool below by goading him that the act of bravado will impress the pool-side Lane. The inebriated jock miscalculates his jump and hits his head fatally against the side of the pool. What seems like a sadistic act of revenge against the archetypical school jock takes on a different meaning by the film’s end, insinuating a dangerous, gialloesque bond between Emmet and Lane. Levine offers some subtle clues to suggest this bond, like the edit from a close-up of Lane glancing around the pool to a shot of Emmet in the bathroom standing in his underwear examining his crotch in a full length mirror; or the purposeful glance that Mandy offers Emmet immediately after Dylan’s tragic fall. The hints are there, and Emmet and Lane are eventually revealed as partners in crime, but the extent of Lane’s emotional investment and commitment to the murderous union is never clearly explained.
The film picks up nine months after the pool-side incident. While Lane remains willfully outside the school’s popular clique (which firmly excludes Emmet, who is further alienated from the others after the pool-side incident), Red (Aaron Himelstein), Bird (Edwin Hodge), and Jake (Luke Grimes) desperately hope that Lane will accept their invitation to spend the weekend at a cottage owned by one of the boy’s parents, Red’s. To their pleasant surprise, Lane accepts, and she joins preppy blonde Chloe (Whitney Able), perky Marlin (Melissa Price), and the three boys, stoner Red, confident, athletic African American Bird, and hipster Jake for a weekend of drinking and (possibly) sex. Once at the cottage we are introduced to another important character, good-looking, thirty-something Gulf War veteran Garth (Ansom Mount), the ground’s caretaker. Garth, who as the older patriarch represents the moral voice of authority, turns Mandy’s head in their introductory scene, a gesture that, in hindsight, can be read in several ways. (Is she just attracted to him, or is she setting him for a fall? Given the tragic loss of her parents at a young age, does she see Garth as a father figure?)
The camera’s greatest moment Mandy fetishization occurs soon after they arrive at the cottage area. Paralleling the urban pool scene, the unattainable Lane, appropriately sweaty from a jog, joins her friends for a swim in the lake. All eyes are on her as she strips to her bathing suit. There is an aura around her which sets her off from the others, as if separating the immortal from the mortals. A golden sunlight shimmers through her auburn hair. Her every movement is poeticized through the extreme slow motion. The use of slow motion reminded me of the way Martin Scorsese often privileges his characters through slow motion (like the treatment of De Niro’s Jake La Motta in Raging Bull). Classical-styled music completes the mythical feel accorded to Lane.
From this point on until the revelation of the twist, the film might be mistaken for your standard slasher fare, with teens having sex and going out into dangerous, isolated spaces to be murdered (the woods, a shed). The first victim fits the classic slasher film convention of sex followed by death so well that I can only speculate an ironic bit of self-awareness on Levine’s part. The horny Marlin ventures out to the barn with sex on her mind and meets Jake. She performs fellatio on Jake. When Jake refuses to return the sexual favor, a frustrated Marlin threatens to seek out ‘farmhand’ Garth. Instead she is caught by the killer, who forces his rifle into her mouth (a crude but effective response to her ‘sinful’ ways). But the characters are fleshed out more than in the traditional slasher film. They are far from simple fodder for killing. While the rural excursion may have been planned (at least by the guys) as a battleground for sex (which, as stated, is almost always a prelude to death in the slasher film), there ends up being more talk and downtime than murder (one of the character’s even mutters that he is “bored”). In close quarters, and with a few drinks in their system, the friends open up and their emotional insecurities rise to the surface. Behind every cruel joke is a suppressed insecurity. At one moment the girl’s revel in penis size jokes at Jake’s expense. A few scenes later we see Chloe removing her padded bra. The seemingly confident, cheerleader Chloe’s constant referring to Marlin as ‘fat’ (she clearly is not) reveals her own insecurities and the distorted self-image that many young women must live with. When comparing herself to the uncommonly beautiful Lane in a delicious bathroom scene, Chloe feels herself second best for perhaps the first time. Sensing her vulnerability, Lane begins a subtle seduction, bringing to the surface Chloe’s suppressed lesbianism. Just as the sensual bathroom scene heats up, teasing the male (and indeed lesbian viewer) with the anticipation of a little lesbian liaison, we can practically hear the collective sigh of disappointment when the romantic mood is broken by the appearance of impatient Red and Bird at the bathroom door. But just as you start to think that you’ve stepped into a character piece, there’s a sting of a different kind waiting at the end of the ride.
Well before the film’s final act, less than an hour into the films eighty-plus running time, the killer’s identity is revealed to be none other than Emmet. Is he killing off his victims as an act of jealousy (seeing the other men as competition for Lane’s inexistent affections), or as an act of revenge against the ‘cool’ students who alienated him (his own actions having an eerie post-Columbine feel to them)? In most slasher films either reason would suffice, but this isn’t your average slasher film. With the revelation coming so soon, the savvy viewer may suspect that director Jonathan Levine and writer Jacob Forman have another trick up their sleeve. After Marlin, the next to feel Emmet’s wrath is Bird, who dies a violent death (he first has his eyes slashed by a knife and then, while crawling blindly on his knees, Oedipus Rex-like, is stabbed repeatedly in the back by Emmet). Garth is then shot from a distance, but not fatally. While Mandy stays behind to help Garth, Chloe and Red attempt to escape into the open space of the nearby desert. Red is shot dead from afar, sending Chloe into a panicked run to elude Emmet in his oncoming truck. The dynamic changes when Mandy, who had gone into Garth’s shed in search of a first aid kit, enters into the equation. While holding a knife in her hand (the same knife Emmet used to kill Bird), Levine frames Mandy in the extreme foreground, with Chloe in the far background running toward the camera, with Emmet in pursuit. The sight of Mandy comforts Chloe, who runs toward her and into the apparent safety of her embrace, only to impale herself on Mandy’s knife. Throughout this scene the audience is unsure what to think, having to quickly add up the disjointed pieces of Mandy’s actions and motivation. The pieces come together when Mandy removes the knife from Chloe’s limp body, which falls to the ground. Emmet now appears standing behind them. The camera encircles them, adding to the sense of moral confusion. The scene cuts to an extreme low angle shot that symbolically frames Emmet and Mandy as ‘partners’ in crime against the bright sky. Mandy breaks the silence: “What took you so long?” At this point the full twist is revealed: Emmet and Mandy are accomplices who have staged the murder spree as foreplay to a double suicide pact (the revelation of two killers adds a nice giallo touch). Only now Mandy has a change of heart and refuses to uphold her end of the bargain, which upsets Emmet’s romantic ideal of them ‘dying together.’ Seeing Garth in the distance, Mandy begins to yell for help. The injured Garth intervenes long enough to allow Mandy to run for safety, but is soon overcome by Emmet, who then gives chase to Mandy. The final stand-off between Mandy and Emmet takes place, appropriately enough, in a pig’s den. With his romantic illusions broken, Emmet seems to have little fight left in him, and succumbs to Mandy’s vicious and fatal clubbing with a wooden pole. Mandy returns to Garth, who is still alive, and helps him into his car. As they drive off into the sunset, Garth musters up enough strength to whisper to Mandy, “You did it….you saved us.” Mandy glances at him and smiles. The song playing on the car radio underscores the scene’s irony: “Yes, it’s gonna be a cold, lonely summer.” The film concludes with a close-up of Mandy’s eyes framed in the car’s rearview mirror, recalling the end of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, not only in the visual sense but in its overall narrative import (there too we have a character, Travis Bickle, who has ‘saved’ someone through the use of excessive violence).
Even with this final plot revelation we are uncertain as to what Mandy’s true motivations are. Did she ever really plan to die along with Emmet? Whose plan was it anyway, Mandy’s or Emmet’s? Did she change her mind about committing suicide only after meeting Garth? And what of poor Garth, who knows nothing about Mandy’s true nature? The sight of them driving off into the sunset doesn’t suggest ‘sequel’ as much as instill apprehension for the fate of the unsuspecting Garth who, as a Gulf War veteran with a tragic personal history, has already suffered plenty. When the teenagers first arrive at the cottage area Mandy makes immediate and lasting eye contact with the handsome, older Garth. I had earlier mentioned the pseudo-mythic nature of Mandy’s persona: unattainable, emotionally distant, and physically superior to everyone. She reacts like a cipher for all the emotions around her, or a chameleon, molding herself to the desires of people around her. This would explain her simultaneous attraction/repulsion to everyone she meets. At first she is aloof with Chloe, and then draws out Chloe’s repressed lesbianism. Why else would she become involved in a suicide pact with someone she seems to have little in common with? In a private exchange she admits to Garth that “she is different” and responds to Emmet’s shock over her refusal to go through with the suicide pact, with the warning, “You should never do anything for me.” (Itself a strange comment; what did Emmet do for her?) Everybody loves Mandy Lane…at their own peril.