Between ‘First Man’, ‘Beautiful Boy’, ‘Boy Erased’ and ‘The Old Man & the Gun’, Oscar-bait films with singular, male-referencing nouns in their titles are in season. Is it mere happenstance, a case of nominal fortuity, or does it suggest a more sweeping reappraisal of masculinity and boyhood in this year’s films? Well, a little bit of both.
To say Hollywood hasn’t always been interested in the particularities of men and their inner lives would be untrue. Were that so there might be a Netflix category for Films Starring Emotionally Constipated Men the way there’s one for Strong Female Leads. Alas, the former is something of a cinematic convention, the latter, unfortunately, still a subcategory deserving of special designation.
Many filmmakers — Sam Peckinpah, for instance — have made the study of the violent male id their cause celebre. And from John Wayne to Humphrey Bogart to James Bond, movies have historically provided a blueprint (albeit, a single-minded one) for the performance of masculinity, so much so that Woody Allen’s character in Play it Again, Sam literally conjures Bogart’s ghost to seek his counsel on courting women. “I never met one who didn’t understand a slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45,” says a spectral Bogart.
Suffice it to say that on-screen examinations of men and masculinity have tended toward hagiography, subtly and not-so-subtly reinforcing patriarchal notions about how to be a man. But as Hollywood itself belatedly reckons with toxic masculinity and the harmful, abusive ways it’s reared its head, more complicated portraits of men are upon us. There was last year’s Phantom Thread, nothing if not a critical study of corrosive male ego, and a succession of awards season juggernauts — ‘Birdman’, ‘Boyhood’, ‘Moonlight’ — that could each be considered male coming-of-age stories, even as the age in question varies dramatically.
Watching this year’s spate of movies, however, I couldn’t help but notice the ways they attempted, to varying degrees of success, to explore two particular kinds of topical masculinity that haven’t always been on screen: a youthful, unblemished one, in which adversity is sentimentalised, and a toxic one, in which pain works as a plot-stimulant, giving cause to our male protagonist’s destructive or selfish or emotionally repressed behaviour.
Take, for instance, ‘First Man’, which doesn’t lionise Neil Armstrong’s dogged race to the moon so much as it suggests the quest itself is a distraction from the death of his two-year old daughter and the monotony of suburban American life. Paul Dano’s superb ‘Wildlife’, too, examines the ways mid-century men dealt with wounded egos: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry is so miffed after being fired from his job as a golf pro that he abandons his family to fight faraway wildfires. A past version of that same film might have considered that decision properly righteous, but here it’s seen as cowardly, a balm for the character’s pride.
Make no mistake — ‘First Man’ and ‘Wildlife’ could hardly be more different. But in both films we find ourselves identifying with Neil and Jerry’s wives, played by Claire Foy and Carey Mulligan with the bewilderment of strong women who’ve wound up with men so spiritually and emotionally aloof.
New kinds of leading men can be seen in two other films this year: ‘Beautiful Boy’, in which a father and son wrestle with the latter’s drug addiction, and ‘Boy Erased’, in which fundamentalist Christian parents send their teenage son Jared off to conversion therapy camp, later learning the cruel ignorance of their ways.
Both films feature stellar performances from Timothee Chalamet and Lucas Hedges, respectively, but they render the pain of addiction and institutionalised bigotry in superficial ways, mostly as engines for parental enlightenment and filial devotion. David, father to Nick, struggling with an addiction to meth, can’t seem to wrap his head around the disease. Chalamet plays the part formidably, but the film suffers where it prescribes to the dogma instead of interrogating it, as if to ask how on earth this could happen instead of why.
Jared’s pain in ‘Boy Erased’ is of an entirely different sort, but it, too, is a film about the weight of society’s expectations of young men. At its best moments — like one scene where Joel Edgerton’s conversion therapy drill sergeant has the boys lined up on a scale of least-to-most manly — the film asks tough questions about the cultural gradients of masculinity, the shades of which are often simplified on-screen.
Seeing as “toxic” is Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year — its second most-frequent collocation is, of course, “toxic masculinity” — it makes sense that the year’s most thoughtful consideration of the subject can be found in Burning, the South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong’s psychological thriller that turns the love triangle of Jules and Jim on its head. It’s a film that’s honest, and strikingly literal, about the way men react to threats to their masculinity.
Invariably, we’ll always have superheroes in spandex, astronauts and boxers and stickup men. Glaring discrepancies remain in the opportunities afforded women in film versus men, in front of and behind the camera. But as the industry begins to slowly redress those imbalances and call time’s up on toxic men more generally, it’s becoming more nuanced and inquisitive about the ways those men, and boys, are depicted on-screen.
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‘Beautiful Boy’ releases in the UAE on November 29.