‘Manodrome’ review: Jesse Eisenberg is phenomenal in John Trengove’s fascinating take on toxic masculinity | Berlinale
The Wound, the acclaimed debut by the South African director John Trengove, provides a good launchpad for his sophomore feature, with Xhosa initiation traditions swapped for a scathing commentary on toxic masculinity and incel culture. Manodrome feels like the first proper film for the manosphere, and yet it does not concern the Internet at all: no 4chan, no Reddit, no avatars nor slang. In line with the writings of Angela Nagle and Laura Bates, the film tries to understand the issues of excessive masculine privileges through normalization rather than sensationalizing them. Here I have in mind the so-called ‘incel genre’ of films, where we recognize similar tendencies in now well-known (often admired by popular culture) characters, such as those of Taxi Driver, Fight Club, Nightcrawler, and also Joker. It’s no coincidence that all of these self-destructive leads are played by Hollywood A-listers, giving a much lauded performance for the ages.
Trengove picks Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and really squeezes the very best out of him. For everyone expecting Eisenberg’s neurotic chattiness, the closest reference in this case would be his Josh in Kelly Reichardt’s ecoterrorist drama Night Moves. But Manodrome takes him further than he’s ever been before: ginger-red, completely vacant, and unapologetically aggressive. His name—Ralphie—exposes him as infantile under a veneer of seriousness. Clues here and there inform us that his father walked away, that he was recently laid off from work, and that he insisted that his nine month pregnant girlfriend Sal—Odessa Young (Mothering Sunday)—keep their unplanned baby in the first place. By virtue of friendly advice—and by friend, I mean his Percocet dealer who goes to the same gym—Ralphie becomes a part of an incel community branding itself as a chosen family, an exclusively male new age group therapy clan, called “Manodrome.”
Led by Dad Dan, a wonderfully poised Adrien Brody (The Pianist), who self-describes as a “three times divorced, a family man, not a husband,” this “familial” structure welcomes every man who decides to become celibate and leave his wife. All live together in the same house and while newbies become “sons” to the elder “dads,” toying with the homoerotic undertones (“daddy/boy” rhetoric) of a toxically homophobic group. The community recognizes the ones in need of help and offers them just that, the affirmation that they belong. Not only that, they shower them with superlatives they have never heard in relation to themselves, but also feed on their insecurities to fuel their hate towards the ‘gynosphere.’ One of the paradoxes embedded in the incel rulebook is that they believe the world is governed by women, their “dirtiness” (sex), and without being granted access to it, they are excluded from all positions of power. Compare this with the feminist credo that the world’s governed by patriarchal norms and you have yourself a massive ideological rift at hand, one which seems impossible to bridge.
Manodrome begins with a cab ride, in which the driver, Ralphie, is caught giving the rearview mirror ambivalent looks. From the back seat, a breastfeeding woman calls him out, demanding he stopped the car. A short encounter establishes him as a hardening shell with a blank, intense stare. The one place he chanelles his energy and conflicting emotions is the local gym, where he lifts and lifts, and in the locker room—a place of potential vulnerability—he casts angry glances at anyone bigger than him, and anyone not white, for that matter and takes mirror selfies pumped up. Throughout the film, there are small moments where Ralphie catches glimpses of people he feels are threatening and “other”: men and women from other ethnicities and cultures, related to pregnancy startles him, and an exhibitionist Santa Claus provokes outright rage he feels compelled to act upon.
Even if, unfortunately, we now know what to expect when it comes to instigated incel networks and the violent eruptions they engender, Manodrome shows a processual development. In most cases of these stories, we learn that a man has been indoctrinated into extreme beliefs only when it’s too late, and thus such narratives get told backwards. To show this, cinematographer Wyatt Garfield (Beatriz at Dinner) follows Ralphie in his social interactions and his alone time with the same attentive curiosity, and builds up the tension with point of view shots and slight tremors of the camera to show how violence is not an outlet, but a wire which can easily short circuit.
This review is from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival.