Jesse Eisenberg in Toxic Masculinity Thriller – The Hollywood Reporter

John Trengove’s searing 2017 debut, The Wound, explored the complex world of Xhosa masculinity via adolescent initiation rites that exposed thorny conflicts of sexuality and personal identity. The protagonist of the South African writer-director’s first English-language feature, Manodrome — played by a febrile Jesse Eisenberg in an eye-opening performance simmering with rage — is already fully inducted into the uneasy halls of manhood and finding it an uncomfortable fit. Barely scraping by financially and staring ahead at an unpromising future, the damaged Ralphie reaches for a lifeline with a shadowy cult of male separatists, which only makes his hold on reality unravel faster.

What Ralphie goes through over the course of this absorbing enough but bludgeoning portrait of corrosive masculinity makes him both victim and monster. Recently laid off from a corporate maintenance job, he’s struggling to make ends meet as an Uber driver and wondering how he’s going to provide for the child his girlfriend Sal (Odessa Young), a convenience store worker, is expecting.


The Bottom Line

Manhood bites.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Adrien Brody, Odessa Young, Philip Ettinger, Sallieu Sesay
Director-screenwriter: John Trengove

1 hour 36 minutes

Young makes the most of a character increasingly looking at her partner and discovering, with growing alarm, that she doesn’t know him at all.

Even the prospect of fatherhood appears to be something Ralphie — who wanted the child more than Sal did — approaches as another means to pump up his fragile masculinity, much like his strenuous body-building sessions at the gym. In the post-workout selfies he takes, or when admiring himself in the images on a bank of televisions in an electronics store, we see the narcissist desperate for his own approval.

Showing vulnerability is anathema to him. When anyone expresses sympathy for his job loss, financial woes and the looming responsibilities of becoming a parent, he lapses into the flimsiest impersonation of self-confidence: “I’m just taking time to stay focused and centered; trying to keep my options open.” But Ralphie seemingly has no options; he’s like a Fight Club refugee without the physical catharsis.

His inner turbulence is especially palpable at the gym, where his intense scrutiny of a Black Adonis named Ahmet (Sallieu Sesay) sends mixed signals. The furious scorn he directs at an amorous gay couple he picks up on his Uber shift makes it clearer that repressed sexuality and internalized homophobia are part of his toxic cocktail of psychological instability. Abandonment issues seeded by his father’s early exit from his life are another source of unresolved angst.

None of that makes Ralphie pleasant company to spend an hour-and-a-half with, although watching Eisenberg — mildly buffed up and sporting flame-red hair — trade his usual neurotic tics for a more bruising intensity is never uninteresting. But does Trengove want us to be terrified by him or pity him for his susceptibility to an extreme ideology that tips this already damaged Alpha Male manqué over the edge, transforming him into a violent sociopath? Maybe both.

The turning point for Ralphie begins when his gym buddy and Oxy supplier, Jason (Phil Ettinger), offers to hook him up with a group of guys who can help him get back on his feet. Being reluctant to acknowledge that he’s even in difficulty, Ralphie is skeptical at first. But the words of solidarity and understanding expressed by the leader of this “family,” Dad Dan (Adrien Brody), are soothing to his ears. Recognizing Ralphie as someone who’s lonely, angry and never had anybody in his corner, silver-tongued Dan says, “There’s a staggering beauty in you. A cataclysmic power to create and to annihilate.”

Dad Dan’s clan, apparently part of a nationwide network of similar groups, is an incel sect in every way except that they congregate in person at a palatial old house instead of online, and they voluntarily abstain from sex, rather than just seething because they can’t get laid. Acolytes like Jason introduce themselves at meetings, adding the prefix Son or Dad to their names, depending on age and seniority, and proudly stating the length of their celibacy.

Abstinence is about taking back power, Dad Dan explains, as men in the group confessional talk about the ways in which the wives or girlfriends they have since dumped were a noose around their necks — deceiving them, draining their strength and self-confidence. Predictably enough, the “C word” comes up.

This is where Trengove’s script gets heavy-handed in its depiction of a poisonous cult of men whose obscene entitlement is matched by their sense of victimhood, demonizing women for everything that ever went wrong in their lives. The chant that accompanies their ritualistic saging — “I invented fire, and I will take it back. I discovered the sun, and I will take it back,” etc. — slips further still into eye-roll territory. By the time Ralphie is fully inducted, which involves a branding iron and a cool symbol, you might be stifling laughter.

“With this pain, I, Son Ralphie, will be released from the Gynosphere to be reborn, my own master and a son of the Manodrome,” he intones solemnly.

While Brody brings effortless authority to his role as the soft-spoken but creepy cult leader, the film has more or less jumped the shark by the time we get a full picture of what his retreat for wounded men is all about. The action then begins a tragic spiral as Ralphie is revealed to be beyond repair, responding all too literally to Dan’s urging to take back his power and do something about the trash-can world, “teeming with assholes.”

Eisenberg makes Ralphie a tightly coiled knot of repression, resentment and aggression, often shot by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield in probing closeups that amplify his combustible state. It’s to the actor’s credit that he generally rises above the lofty self-seriousness of a movie that aims to sound the death knell on toxic masculinity — fast becoming the most hackneyed term of the 21st century — by showing us the pathetic, broken boys behind that façade.

Movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up prompted an overdue re-examination of unhealthy male behaviors, even if the jury’s still out on how much of a corrective they’ve brought about. It’s also unclear who the audience is supposed to be for the wave of downer movies those movements have spawned about fucked-up men.

Full credits

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Distribution: Universal
Production companies: Felix Culpa, Liminal Content, in association with Pulse Films, Riverside Entertainment
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Adrien Brody, Odessa Young, Philip Ettinger, Sallieu Sesay, Ethan Suplee, Evan Joningkeit, Caleb Eberhardt, Gheorghe Muresan
Director-screenwriter: John Trengove
Producers: Gina Gammell, Ben Giladi, Riley Keough, Ryan Zacarias
Executive producers: Christian Mercuri, Roman Varas, Pia Patonnian, Brian Loschiavo, Pastor Alvarado, Jeff Molyneaux, Ryan Schemmel, Olivia Tyson, Edward Storm, Jennifer Storm, Casey Fuller, Robbie Gottlieb, Alexander Akoka, Clara Sansarricq, Michael Clofine, Len Blavatnik, Thomas Benski, Peter Kaufman, Nicolass Bertelsen, Michael Goodin
Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield
Production designer: Carmen Navis
Costume designer: Melissa Vargas
Music: Christopher Stracey
Editors: Julie Monroe, Matthew Swanepoel
Casting: Salome Oggenfuss, Geraldine Baron

1 hour 36 minutes

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