From the cradle to the grave

John Trengove on masculinity in crisis and Manodrome

by Jennie Kermode


The tale of a father-to-be who finds himself losing his grip after losing his job on a construction site, Manodrome explores toxic masculinity from the inside out. A floundering relationship with a woman, a desperately repressed attraction to a man and an inability to cope with society at large sees Ralphie (Jesse Eisenberg) fall under the sway of a male isolationist cult led by the self-styled ‘Dad Dan’ (Adrien Brody), but nothing ever really seems to make the pain go away. It’s South African writer/director John Trengove’s follow-up to 2017’s The Wound, and we found time for a chat about it just ahead of its US cinematic release.

Opening the discussion, I tell him that my favourite scene in the film is one where Ralphie is driving an Uber and takes it upon himself to give manly advice to a boy (Matthew Lamb) who is travelling in the back, telling him pretty much the worst things he could about how to deal with negative emotions and how to cope with other people.

“I love that you love that scene,” he says. “I mean, first of all, that kid was just absolutely a wonderful young actor. He astonished everybody, including Jesse, on the day that we shot that. I don't remember exactly how that scene came about, but there is definitely this recurring idea of man and boy, and man as a child – Ralphie, who is trying to be a dad but is also looking for a daddy. That relationship, I think, is something that you feel throughout the film, playing out in different incarnations, and so I think it came out of that. How would Ralphie talk to a little kid? What would he say?

“It became a useful opportunity to show how he doesn't have the upbringing, the fatherly influence, he doesn't have the language to input any kind of wisdom to a young kid. Instead, what we hear is how Ralphie survived his childhood, with, you know, ‘You've just got to push that stuff down and just got to kill the pain and kill those voices, push it back.’ I think it's a tragic scene in a sense because we get a glimpse into his own problematic childhood.”

Woven through the film, the Uber scenes function like chapter headings. The first one is interesting because it features Ralphie staring at a passenger who is breastfeeding her baby, but we don’t really know what his motives are, and whether it's a sexual thing for him or whether it's part of his process of thinking about the fact that he's going to be a parent.

“We don't know where the story is going,” John agrees, “but in my mind, the opening image of the film, which is this baby latching onto his mother's breast, and the final scene of the film, which is Ralphie kind of cradling up into Sachiel's arms, there's an echo there. What he's actually doing in that scene is he's staring at the baby and he's fantasising about being that baby. The all encompassing safeness and softness of that moment is this longing for tenderness. Ironically, it's a thing that he's running away from the entire film and that he somehow finds his way back to by the end.”

There are a number of themes in this film which he’s explored in his work before, but how did this particular story develop?

“There's definitely a lot of parallels with The Wound,” he acknowledges. “It really started when reading this amazing book by Angela Nagle called Kill All Normies. That was just before the Proud Boys and all of these online communities of masculinity were public knowledge. It was certainly all new to me. And there was a chapter in that book called The Manosphere, so I was just fascinated by that.

“Having just made a film – and it just so happened that I was reading this book in the backs of Ubers because I was in LA at the time and were taking all these meetings across town, and I had all this time in the backs of hired cars – somewhere in that moment, these ideas started coming together. Obviously, the idea of Taxi Driver was also in there at the beginning. This idea of a Taxi Driver for the Trump era. I think once I started writing the film, it became something else, but there's definitely something about the isolation of a car that is sort of a personal space.

“To have these random strangers drop into the back and what that means, sharing this intimate space for a brief moment with complete stranger...I love all the scenes in the car because we see Ralphie in the presence of people, and then we see him alone in the car. The scenes where he's alone in the car are almost the most interesting because he allows his madness to come out a little bit in the public privacy of that bubble.”

Cars traditionally have been seen as quite a masculine space because women weren't driving as much for a long time. There are other kinds of claustrophobic, masculine spaces in the film as well, and the car feels like a microcosm of that environment.

“Yeah, absolutely. What you're saying about cars is right, but it was also important to us that it should be a really shitty car.” He laughs. “There's a fantasy of being the man in charge on the road, and yet there's something kind of humiliating about his car, his job. So yeah, I think what was interesting was the sort of failure in those scenes. What characterises Ralphie is he just fails constantly, and that is his sadness, that he's trying to be something that he's not. And so there's a constant projection, a constant push that is exhausting, that destroys his life and wears him right down.”

There’s a lovely little quote from Dad Dan. When he's explaining about who he is and what he does, he just happens to mention that he has three failed marriages behind him, but he's a family man. It seems that he's actually, in some ways, more similar to Ralphie than he makes out.

“Yeah, that line. Actually, I shot a documentary at some stage about a gay leather family of men who were all in the leather scene, daddies and boys and masters and slaves, and the leader of this one family said that: ‘At one point I was a mess as a husband, but I always knew I was a family man.’ It was an interesting journey for him to that. And in a way, The Manodrome was a little bit based on that idea of chosen family. We might make a mess of our biological family and of our childhood and our attempts to integrate into society, but here we can find a new family to rehabilitate in and to be the best versions of ourselves.”

There seems to be some repressed homoerotic desire there, as in other parts of the film, but there’s also something else which we encounter in film more rarely – a focus on the need for one another’s support which these men feel without being able to talk about it.

“Yeah, I find that fascinating. The sort of negotiated intimacy that can happen in these hypermasculine spaces, and how closely that fits to male gay culture. Sometimes you find the same kind of toxic prejudices that play out in communities without it being overtly or inherently queer. That space, I do think it's something that Ralphie is subconsciously drawn to, this idea of a space where he can be held by men.”

Something I like about that, I say, is that it takes ideas around toxic masculinity beyond interactions with women. When we do spend time with a woman, Ralphie’s girlfriend Sal (Odessa Young), she's not stereotypical. She behaves in ways that we perhaps wouldn't expect.

“Absolutely. It is always important that Sal should rupture his sense of how things should be, so that there's one kind of propaganda from Dan and then she's this constant reminder that things are somehow different. His world is not one that he can control, or she is not something that he can control. And also I wanted to invest her with some of the kind of – selfishness is not the right word, but certain kinds of masculine traits.”

He refers to a specific decision she makes late in the film, which is likely to shock some viewers just as it shocks Ralphie.

“When we were talking about the film before there was a script, it was always the men who would baulk at that moment and say ‘You know, this is going to be alienating.’ And then the women who I spoke to, and Gina [Gammell] and Riley [Keough], our producers, said it was one of the main reasons they came forward. They love this. It happens all the time, and nobody talks about it.”

We talk about casting and I ask if he chose Jesse Eisenberg after seeing him in a similar context in The Art Of Self-Defense.

“I didn't,” he says. “I actually hadn't seen that film when we started talking to Jesse. It was really more of something crystallised around the idea of the character. I'd always written it with a hypermasculine gym guy in mind, but then there was always this idea of Ralphie as a baby, and then at a certain point, we just realised we should be looking at somebody completely different. And then Jesse suddenly jumped to the top of the list. He's such a fabulous actor. I couldn't be happier with Jesse, I can tell you that. What he brings to the role and the sort of dimensionality that he plays with and his fearlessness as an actor, it's just an absolute privilege to work with him.”

As we come towards the end of our time, I ask about the casting of Sallieu Sesay, who delivers a brilliant supporting turn, making a big impression long before he gets to speak.

“I'm so glad you brought him up,” he says. “He's a live wire and a huge talent and he's just waiting to be given the kind of roles that he's capable of playing. Sallieu has this idea about the character that I think is perfect, which is that Ahmet, his character, represents a kind of freedom, ease and fluidity in himself that Ralphie craves and doesn't have. So it's that largesse, that ability to be spontaneous, to take up space, that is so infuriating to Ralphie. It was that kind of thought about the character that really set off the dynamic. And I think that makes them so perfect.”

Manodrome opens in US cinemas tomorrow, 10 November.

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