Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Trengove seems determined to defy the standard solutions to this sort of mess."

There’s a scene about halfway through John Trengove’s latest musing on damaged masculinity when Ralphie (Jesse Eisenberg) decides to give some manly advice to a boy who is riding in the back of his Uber. The boy has been having an honest conversation over the phone, expressing his fears about wetting himself. That’s not something he should ever talk about with anyone, Ralphie tells him. He should hide those emotions. He should push those negative feelings deep down inside.

There is his car, Ralphie feels safest of all. It’s a traditionally masculine space, though Trengove emphasises its armouring, enclosing, uterine or cocoon-like qualities. Within it, Ralphie strives to find new form, to be fully born into the world. It’s the only space where he has any real control, and that small measure of power he hungrily abuses, and we see something of what he might be capable of if he decided to express his anger more widely.

Copy picture

The sense of panic and the misguided attempt at fatherly wisdom share, at least in part, the same cause. Ralphie’s girlfriend Sal (Odessa Young) is pregnant, close to term. It’s not a good time for it. He has recently lost his job on a construction site. Their relationship is under considerable strain. She has he own things going on which she doesn’t talk to him about because, well, he’s completely unapproachable, and he recognises this distance and resents it. To make matters worse, it’s getting close to Christmas, and Ralphie has so much unresolved trauma related to the festive season that a certain scene from Gremlins comes to mind.

If you feel like you’ve seen this Jesse Eisenberg film before, well, that’s understandable. The Art Of Self-Defense is the most obvious parallel, though it has elements in common with several others. Trengove, however, has additional ideas he wants to explore. It won’t take viewers long to notice the undercurrent of homoerotic tension in the gym where Ralphie struggles to keep from starting at handsome fellow weightlifter Ahmet (Sallieu Sesay in a brief but dazzling cameo). There’s something similar present in the bite-sized macho cult which he stumbles into, led by Adrien Brody’s self-styled ‘Dad Dan’ (“I’ve had three failed marriages but I still see myself as a family man.”). Where the film really focuses, however, is on the parallels between that cult and queer forms of found of constructed family. Rejecting dependence on women and cut off from other traditional forms of social integration, these various men seek a point of anchorage in one another.

It’s in the unpredictability of that bond, as much as in the processes of Ralphie becoming further estranged from wider society, that the film finds its tension. We don’t know what hidden agenda Dan might have, or how he might react if he senses himself losing control. We don’t know if Ralphie is carrying more damage than he really knows how to handle. Brody quietly sends up a number of his recent characters, and there’s a fair bit of comedy elsewhere, though without the absurd playfulness of The Art Of Self-Defense, and with a much bleaker undercurrent. Trengove seems determined to defy the standard solutions to this sort of mess. He wants to find out what will happen if they don’t produce the hoped-for results, or if the credits fail to role quickly enough and disillusioned characters are forced to reckon with lives still unresolved.

The difficulty with all this is that it’s hard to make men as commonplace as this seem interesting. When the point rests on their lack of distinction and the unexamined quality of their emotions, the whole thing winds up feeling rather flat. Importantly, yet frustratingly nonetheless, the interesting stuff happens offstage. Sal, in particular, proves to be more complex than Ralphie allowed for. His recognition of this, and his disappointment in himself, is vital to the story’s conclusion. Your ability to engage with it will depend on how well you can stand up to an hour and a half in his company.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2023
Share this with others on...
Manodrome packshot
A man loses his grip on reality after becoming involved in a libertarian masculinity cult.

Director: John Trengove

Writer: John Trengove

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Adrien Brody, Odessa Young, Sallieu Sesay, Philip Ettinger

Year: 2023

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: UK, US


BIFF 2023

Search database: