There is something incredibly fascinating about images of shattered masculinity on the big screen. The notion of testosterone fuelled hyper-men imploding into impotent puddles of muscular pulp and feminine tears seems to have fuelled the popular imagination of filmgoers since the medium’s earliest beginnings – most especially in the United States.
It seems that, even when these films are bad, there is something sadomasochistic about them that fascinates the viewer (or perhaps more commonly the male viewer?). Perhaps seeing an alpha-male disintegrate allows the male viewer a way of empathetically releasing emotions that he might otherwise feel it was inappropriate to display? Maybe it provides the potential for a more layered approach to masculine identity that might be more intriguing to a female viewer than the standard male targeted action film? Or is it simply that the (perhaps out-dated) notion of the alpha-male as superior leader provides the opportunity to demonstrate the greatest of falls?
It may simply be that creating a character whose self-destructive nature allows a slightly more complex portrait of masculinity, giving the viewer an excuse to be enraptured in a film’s depiction of brute force without feeling complicit. For example, one might joyously embrace the furious violence with which Taxi Driver concludes while also being able to conclude that this violence was the result of the protagonist’s insanity. But, without further ado, here are ten films that, whether they are awful or brilliant, have a fascinating relationship with shattered masculinity (I’ve attempted to dodge some of the more common choices where possible). It can be assumed that several of these clips will contain scenes of violence which may offend.
Andrew Dominik’s masterfully directed biopic on the life of notorious Australian criminal, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read (played by Eric Bana), is a fascinating and entirely believable depiction of a man in total psychological free-fall. In Dominik’s vision, Read struggles to function as a kind of criminal strategist, only to be thwarted by his habit of exploding into bouts of unexpectedly violent behaviour.
In this (quite graphic) clip, Read is a prisoner in the infamous Pentridge prison, dolling out justice of his own to a rival criminal, only to immediately regret his decision.
The Wrestler (2008)
Mickey Rourke’s career is the perfect demonstration of man pulverised by his own masculinity. He quit acting in the early 1990s to become a professional boxer (and also because he was so out of control that nobody would hire him). While the diversion saw him succeed in little more than having his handsome face permanently pulverised, it did allow him time to meditate on his own failings and mistakes. It was with this film, about a steroid-addled wrestler with a long past as a negligent husband and father, that Darren Aronofsky provided Rourke with the opportunity to return to the limelight. The result is stunning – an emotionally obliterating depiction of a man with a passion for a profession that he can no longer pursue, and a love for a daughter that he constantly betrays. If you haven’t seen it, please do.
The Chase (1966)
In Arthur Penn’s underappreciated classic, Marlon Brando plays a stooge sheriff in a town that thrives on the successes of a local oil-magnate. When a series of events reinvigorate the apathetic cop, placing him in the position of having to protect a criminal from the horrific brutality of the local community, his efforts are not appreciated. A very special film that thrives on the kind of shattered masculine identity for which Brando was already very well known – you might just need to excuse the out dated trailer.
This film is a rather brave attempt to create a kind of crime-thriller cum introspective meditation on the life of action star, Jean Claude Van-Damme. Playing himself in what will probably always be considered the only convincing role of his career, Van Damme gets taken hostage during the robbery of a post office in Belgium, only to be mistaken for the perpetrator by the local authorities. As he becomes the unwilling line of communication between his captors and the law, Van Damme meditates on the many personal mistakes he’s made during the course of his life. In a moment of undeniable power, Van Damme turns to the camera at one point and delivers a ten minute monologue on his life. Solid stuff.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
This epic western, from the brilliant but fascistic Sam Peckinpah, is set not in the old west but just prior to the First World War. The film follows a rag-tag bunch of morally bankrupt criminals on the run from the law, heading towards the Mexican border. From the first scene, it becomes clear that these men, however charismatic they might be, are quite willing to murder any man, woman or child that gets in their way. When they do finally make it to Mexico, they are not greeted with the peace that they had hoped for, but only with the opportunity to fulfil the horrible destiny that their warped code has made inevitable. Forty-odd years on, this is still one of the most brutal westerns ever made, and oddly enough, is also one of the great melancholy works that present the horrific poetry of the old west.
I went into this one with my red pen handy, ready to put a big giant cross on the film that dared to present a narrative around that most deplorable of sports, the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). Instead, what I discovered was a truly great film about traumatised men and their desperate attempts to use violence to control and compensate for the pain of the past. Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton are absolutely flawless. This film will hurt, but it’s worth it.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
I don’t know what they were putting in the water in the late 1960s, but whatever it was, it was nasty stuff. This depiction of a dozen murderers, rapists and other scumbags, assembled together for a suicide mission to wipe out Nazis (as an alternative to death row), is about as hard-core as it gets. At no point does this classic steer in the direction of sentimentality or attempt to provide relief from the brutality of its narratives or characters. I’ve rarely seen anything as disturbing as when one of the twelve “heroes” (a psychopathic Christian rapist) is distracted from his end goal by an oblivious German woman who catches his eye. One of those occasions where you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the Nazis by the end of the third act. Another of those stunningly produced fascistic films that is too serious to not take seriously. Problematic stuff, but an interesting insight into a kind of hyper-grim depiction of masculinity in the late 1960s.
Stallone appears to have dedicated this last part of his career to films about broken men trying to keep on moving (Rambo, Rocky VI, The Expendables), but the film that most successfully addresses these themes is the rarely considered Copland. Stallone plays the stooge sheriff of a town just across the bridge from Manhattan, populated entirely by New York cops. He’s lazy, a bit slow and deaf in one ear, and the first time we see him he drunkenly crashes his patrol car into a tree. But when the level of corruption in his town gets so bad he can’t ignore it any longer, this deadbeat sheriff decides to regain some of his long lost dignity and start doing his job. An absolute stunning cast (Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel etc.) plays second fiddle to Stallone’s perfectly realised loveable loser. Worth a look.
Wake in Fright (1972)
This Peckinpah-esque nightmare-vision (originally a novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook) presented an alternative Australia, littered with aimless, uneducated ockers endlessly drowning themselves in incompressible amounts of beer while engaging in acts of extreme violence towards each other AND the local wild-life.
The story, so far as it goes, concerns a school-teacher who finds himself stuck in an outback town (or perhaps small city) on his way to a holiday in Sydney. Having lost all his money in a local game of Two-Up, this teacher finds himself equally horrified and enthralled by the grotesque lifestyle of the locals. Things escalate, as they often do, leading to a night of incredible debauchery, much of which concerns horribly sadistic behaviour towards kangaroos. The greatest film about men devastated by alcohol and isolation that you’ll ever see. Check out an earlier review here.
Raging Bull (1980) & Taxi Driver (1976)
Of course, it would be impossible to avoid Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese in a list of films about shattered masculinities, but I’m counting them as one. These films are so deeply embedded in the canon that I’m not even going to discuss them beyond saying that they set the standard for exploring the complex and horrific results of masculine inadequacy.