The first rule ofmanodromeis that you are not talking about “Fight Club”.
‘Fight Club’ features prominently on the writer-director John TrengroveDavid Fincher’s unsettling second feature, though no one overtly mentions David Fincher’s provocative late ’90s film in this dark psychological and socially critical thriller, who finds the state of masculinity even harder than Fincher he a quarter of a century ago. Trengrove, who is gay and originally from South Africa (his 2017 debut album “The Wound” was shortlisted for the international Oscar award), brings an uncanny sensibility to his otherwise unsatisfying analysis of contemporary manhood, enlisting Jesse Eisenberg to play yet another skinny white guy seeking an outlet for deep wells of festering aggression.
Here, he finds him in a secret society of like-minded dudes, led by Adrien Brody as a self-proclaimed father figure who goes by the name “Dad Dan” and teaches Eisenberg’s character, Ralphie, to “rise “. In what looks like a case of lazy (type)casting, “Manodrome” reunites with its once-shrimp star in “The Art of Self-Defense” mode, embodying another variation of his stunted man-boy persona/ now familiar repressed – only this time Eisenberg hit the weights, dished in a way he had never done before.
Ralphie devotes a lot of energy to training. For him, the gym is like a microcosm of the whole world. It should be noted that the only woman to be seen in this space – the female bodybuilder at the reception – is five times more pumped up than Ralphie. Visibly uncomfortable in his skin, he stares at a muscular black doing curls at the next post, or cowers in an empty corner of the locker room. If you can guess where these behaviors are heading, then “Manodrome” isn’t as sneaky as Trengrove thinks. Helmsman decided to shock and surprise, but the twists feel rather rigged to reaffirm his own take on toxic masculinity.
“Manodrome” has more than a few parallels to Sundance’s controversial entry “Magazine Dreams” (those films all date back to “Taxi Driver”). It’s a genre that evolves alongside society’s expectations of its men, and yet, without voice-over narration, such repressed characters can often feel frustrating and inscrutable. Outside of the gym, Ralphie works as an Uber driver, which is a constant source of humiliation – like when a young mother nursing her baby in the back seat asks him to pull over when she catches Ralphie driving her. watch in the rear view mirror. Was he lustful, or curious, or what? The character’s inner life isn’t defined well enough for the audience to interpret his inappropriate gaze.
Relatively late in the film, we learn that Ralphie has been abandoned by his father, which is only one of many factors that explain the troubles he is currently going through. This no doubt influences his willingness to accept Dan as a surrogate father, but complicates the impending responsibility he must feel for his unborn child. While snooping around the posh Manodrome mansion – where other lost souls feel a sense of pseudo-family support – Ralphie finds a gun in Dan’s desk drawer (presumably hidden by Chekhov). After rejecting so many other tired genre shortcuts, it’s a shame Trengrove is falling back on this one.
But Ralphie will eventually break, of course, and when he does, the scene feels didactic and unconvincing. He shoots and kills someone for exposing a dimension within himself that the film never adequately establishes, and here “Manodrome” shifts from an intriguing premise – a way of manifesting in the real world the kind of brotherhoods cultists who appear to be brainwashing young men online – to a didactic lecture on what’s wrong with the state of modern masculinity. Sure, there’s a certain satisfying irony in postulating that homophobia serves to mask an irreconcilable, shameful desire (as “The Power of the Dog” did with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character), but “Manodrome” doesn’t. not make a very convincing case.
The characters feel skinny, the secret society seems implausible, and its goals too vague to capture the imagination. “Manodrome” taps into deep in-game unease the world over, but it only presents the shell of an idea, focusing on a not-so-interesting character with only the hazier of goals. The film should be very disturbing, but the dramatic tension never subsides, despite composer Christopher Stacey’s best efforts to detach us by injecting jarring strings beneath mundane scenes. The film centers on a man with little ambition drawn into a movement of equally disenfranchised guys. They promise voluntary celibacy and renounce the dominant influence of women.
Trengrove doesn’t identify with Ralphie so clearly that it’s hard for us to identify. And unless the movie is willing to risk understanding the frustrations of men who cut themselves off from healthy relationships and instead seek companionship in shadowy groups like this, its “nothing a good hug wouldn’t cure” analysis seems reductive and unsatisfying.