Berlin 2023

Manodrome review – a dark foray into the ouroboros of toxic masculinity

Jesse Eisenberg is brilliantly cast against type in a fascinating, flawed thriller with too many moving parts to do its subject justice

In a recent poll conducted by the UK’s leading anti-fascist group HOPE not Hate, it was discovered that more young men had consumed content by “men’s rights” influencer Andrew Tate than had heard of the Prime Minister. It’s a grim statement: not least because Tate is one of the most rabidly misogynistic figures on the internet, but because 45% of the young men polled had a positive view of the man currently being detained in Romania for sex trafficking charges.

As such, Manodrome – which sees a vulnerable young man lured into a male separatist cult that espouses the need for men to “unlock their cataclysmic power” and abandon all females in their lives – could not be more of-the-moment. A bleak and accurate depiction of the ouroboros of toxic masculinity that is only growing more fork-tongued, John Trengrove’s thriller takes what many naively believe is an improbable or one-off case of radicalisation and exposes how easy it is for the most quotidian of everymen to commit acts of violence under the guise of “taking back power.”

Our protagonist is Ralphie (Jesse Eisenberg), a Travis Bickle-esque Uber driver who spends his time pumping iron at the gym as a way to avoid facing up to his impending fatherhood with girlfriend Sal (Odessa Young). Unlike Scorsese’s film or other recent examples of incel-adjacent art like Joker, though, there’s little chance of a media-illiterate viewer co-opting Manodrome as a cool manifesto for their perceived plight. Ralphie is having a crisis of masculinity – not only because he feels disgusted by how comfortable women and LGBTQ+ people are becoming in comparison to his own anxiety, but also because of a sense of long-fossilized trauma; his own father abandoned him on Christmas Day, and this holiday is once again fast approaching.

It’s all quite subtle, until it isn’t. We see, through Ralphie’s eyes, the small elements of daily life that cause him unexplained consternation: a woman “flagrantly” breastfeeding in his cab and then angrily calling him a pervert for staring; a gay couple kissing in his rear view mirror, a group of virile, homosexual Black men at his gym that request for the music to be changed from metal rock to lycra-snapping pop. The start of the end for Ralphie’s mental stability arrives when a gym buddy offers to introduce him to a group of guys known to “help people like him” – an in-person cult run by “Dad Dan” (Adrien Brody), a serenely strange leader who recruits ‘Sons’ to live in his remote cabin as a way to be “released from the Gynosphere.”

Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the weedy loser who wants to be more – his vague philosophy of “taking time to focus and be centered” to cope with his struggles exposing the fallacy at the heart of the cult’s libertarian ideals, a form of faux-enlightenment for the QAnon era. At its best, Manodrome is a terrifying film because it depicts how easily modern men are being coaxed into an extreme hatred of women, taking built-in tenets of socially ordained misogyny and yanking it up to the surface. Has any recent media managed to get into the murk of this fast-growing manifesto of poisoned masculinity, developed in response to subjugated groups feeling more emboldened to be themselves, upsetting and exposing the precarity of straight, cis, white men as a ruling force in the world?

Where Manodrome lets itself down is the “Manodrome” cult itself, which is so ridiculous and parodic that it takes away from how horrifying quotidian radicalisation actually is. There’s also a bemusing lack of focus on the internet’s role in radicalization, even when we see Ralphie scrolling in bed, clearly not someone who eschews social media. Perhaps, divorced from the online lingo of “cucks” and “betas” and “soy boys,” the film is advocating an argument that’s more insidious than we think: that even with internet regulation of Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) hate groups, this ideology will still find its way to flourish in the “real world.” Trengrove, as elucidated in his director’s statement, believes that there is “something unintentionally queer about these homogenous communities,” but perhaps there are too many moving parts in this narrative to fully explore this angle in a way that feels realised and focused in a 95-minute feature.

Within this, though, Eisenberg is doing incredible work as a man barely able to keep his rage at bay, and the film reaches admirably high for quasi-biblical themes that posit masculinity as absolving, cyclical, a spiritual struggle of patricide, and how one must annihilate his own vulnerability as a means to survive. The sexes are at war, and Manodrome offers no solution for an armistice. It’s still a fascinating film, visually impressive and propelled with real verve – but the problem at hand is too unwieldy for this particular story to work.

Manodrome was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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