I’m not sure if I’m boasting or complaining, but so far, no-one has ever asked me to join a male fight club; this just seems to me to be something that happens in movies, not to me. When secret societies led by off-the-grid male patriarchs are planning their bare-chested grappling competitions, my name just never seems to be in the frame for an invite, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just not the fight club type. But then again, if I was in a secret fight club, I guess the first rule is not to talk about it, so, as Rick Springfield said, the point is probably moot.
My regular reader will know that despite my aversion to brutal male bonding and violent physical confrontation, I am a big fan of Jesse Eisenberg; we spent some time chatting in an Edinburgh hotel room at the stage in his career where getting dangled in front of journo-hacks like me was something he regularly had to contend with. Eisenberg was a slam-dunk as someone to hang with, with his own personal and creative ideas about writing plays and a working knowledge of JD Salinger’s literary universe. The Catcher in the Rye remains a great unfilmed novel, now sentimentalised and divorced for its original, rather caustic meaning; if Salinger was around in 2023, surrounded by grim images of toxic masculinity, he might well have created Manodrome; writer/director John Trengrove’s film is a cautionary story of a young man’s gradual, painful alienation from society.
Sporting an orange bowl haircut, Ralphie (Eisenberg) is an NYC Uber driver, with a tough schedule that puts him under the chemical cosh with a Percocet addiction and a unhealthy obsession with bulking himself up at the gym. Ralphie has a pregnant girlfriend Sal (an excellent Odessa Young) but falls under the influence of a sinister community of estranged men led by Dad Dan (Adrien Brody). ‘Are you not getting enough attention?’ Ralphie is asked, ‘Why do we make ourselves look smaller than we are?…let the real men do the thinking,’ Dad Dan says his methods help young men ‘get back on their feet’ and surmises that Ralphie is a neglected project with a look that shows ‘that nobody every showed up for you.’ But Dad Dan’s philosophy eventually falls back on predictable unreconstructed misogyny, calling women the C word and glib exhortations like ‘Corporate America does not give a fuck about human capital!’ Manodrome has been compared to Taxi Driver, Fight Club and American Psycho, as Ralphie’s desire to be a ‘real man’ takes him from being a sympathetic protagonist to something darker, losing his grip on reality and increasingly wishing his life away through the sights of a Glock firearm. An early vision of a street Santa exposing himself is reprised when Ralphie takes back control by viciously taking a baseball bat to the traditional father figure, but how much of this is actually happening to Ralphie, and how much is just in his own mind?
If Manodrome covers ground addressed in more iconic films, it also acts as a corrective to the glamourisation of male loneliness featured in these films; Ralphie is in harsh decline, as we see from the sleekit manner in which he steals a child’s phone when it gets left in the back of his cab. With Dan on one shoulder demanding that Ralphie ‘take back the power’ and Sal complaining about ‘this baby that you begged me to keep,’ Ralphie’s spouting gibberish about annihilation provides some foreshadowing to an inevitably violent but not pleasingly cathartic aftermath. With warnings in place for disturbing content, Manodrome is a hard film to love, but it’s a fearless insight into the collapsing white-male mind-set, and features another scorching performance from Eisenberg, who shrugs off the bookish, sensitive aura that has often been his signature to make the tortured Ralphie something of a recognisable monster for our troubled times.
Thanks to Lionsgate for advanced access to this title.
In US Theaters November 10, 2023
On Demand and Digital November 17, 2023