Shattered Masculinities: Muscular pulp and feminine tears

Chopper-Eric-Bana-Pointing-Gun-to-his-head1There 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.

Chopper (2000)

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.

JCVD (2008)

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.

Warrior (2011)

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.

Copland (1997)

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.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

48 thoughts on “Shattered Masculinities: Muscular pulp and feminine tears

  1. As a female storyteller with a psychology degree, I’m giving this post a thumb’s up! Western gender norms are a frightful thing, indeed. Men are lords of testosterone. They represent authority and dominance. Alpha or not, this schema is heaped onto boy (and girls) from an early age. Men/boys aren’t supposed to show “weakness.” Touchy-feely stuff is for girls. Take out your tampon, little pussy. Walk it off. (Misogyny/Cis-privilege at its finest, but I digress…)

    Is it any surprise men might find “shattered masculinity and feminine tears” compelling? After all, don’t we watch movies so we can live vicariously through the characters as they blow up shit, have lots of sex, kill people, etc? We’re all looking for an escape. Rigid gender conformity is just a part of the reason why.

    Good post. 🙂

  2. “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?”

    This is a really interesting point. As a female viewer and storyteller it’s not something I’ve considered before. Thanks.

  3. Brilliant!!.. out of all the things in the world.. movies!.. I never thought the stereotyped structure of movies could be seen in a different light until now… loved it.

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  5. This was a great article. The comments represent some of the most interesting discussion I’ve found in the blog world. This all made me think of Seven Psychopaths. I grabbed the movie out of the Redbox expecting a garden variety action film. What I got was a very thoughtful treatise on masculinity, or some incarnations of it, in Hollywood (and by extension) American culture.

  6. Is that what Wake in Fright’s about? No way am I watching or reading it then, however educational. Mind you I actually knew Kenneth Cook – he’s the only famous person I ever did know, he was a friend of my parents and came round regularly for dinner. He had a really pretentious voice, all deep and rolling. Dead now though.

  7. I just thought about this randomly, but an excellent film that deals in shattered masculinity quite heavily is Rundskop/Bullhead (2011) – an underrated Belgian gem.
    Trailer here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fvLVNlMvus
    I recommend this heartily. Many of the Hollywood tropes of the drama genre are absent, and the film manages to say a lot all the while being as terse as its protagonist. In my opinion it is never sentimental and is even emotionally harsh and uncompromising.

  8. Great post. I’m guessing Reservoir Dogs was one of those left off the list as being too obvious.
    The Wrestler was a film that took me by surprise with its poignancy. Though I have absolutely no interest in wrestling, the film grabbed me by the throat and knocked the wind out of me.
    Copland and Wake in Fright are inspired choices, too, and I’ll check out Warrior on the strength of your write up.

    • Thanks! Definitely, although I’m not sure if Tarantino represents his characters as shattered so much as explosive – outside of the cop (who is actually the most moral of all the characters) nobody ever really seems to in any way wrestle with their own identities.

      Please do check out Warrior – a very special film!

  9. Interesting topic. I like it. I haven’t seen most of these movies and don’t expect that I will, but you’ve given me something new to thing about.
    Thanks.

  10. Extremely interesting post – it must have taken you ages to compile it, but a labour of love no doubt.
    I’ve never really been attracted to the ‘shattered masculinity’ movies. I’ve seen too much of it in real life. Men trying to live up to impossible standards set by society. Men trying to be the men portrayed by Hollywood. Real men are so much more than that (see my post ‘I need a hero’ for my views on it)
    I’ve been trying to think of an example that’s not been mentioned above. My mind strays to The Searchers and Ethan Edwards descending into a psychopathic mein as his obsessive search for his niece goes on and on. In the end he changes from a man of honour into something less.
    The movie had a kind of upbeat ending but I doubt if thats what was in Ford’s mind.

    Thanks for taking the time to produce this blog. Excellent.

    • Thanks – Interesting insights!

      Absolutely, The Searchers is perhaps the ultimate entry into this category (as is much of the Western genre).

      I’ll definitely check out your article!

  11. Very cool piece, sir. I agree with you about Warrior. That film took me by surprise and packed an emotional wallop that hasn’t left me yet. Nick Nolte was stunning, a sort of fulcrum for the definition of masculinity pressed into brawny detail by the two leads.

  12. Very good article and subject.

    I would have though “Bad Lieutenant” to be a good addition to the list as well. Not only was the guy broken, he was irretrievably so.

    • Thanks 🙂

      Agreed, but that was one of the films I was referring to when I mentioned that I’d avoided some of the more obvious examples. It’s been so heavily interrogated over the years (by myself included) that I thought I’d give it a miss this time around.

  13. Interesting post, thanks. To contribute (humbly) to the discussion as to why this theme so captivates, might I suggest that perhaps it is because, on both sides of the gender line, gender roles are essentially about fighting a losing battle? No matter what walk of life one comes from, one if likely to have experienced feelings of failure with regard to meeting the expectations associated with his/her gender. Watching a film which (sympathetically) portrays this issue could be extremely relatable to a lot of people. In the handful of films from your list that I have seen, they seem to remain ambiguous enough on the issue of whether or not they support those models/archetypes of masculinity, which is the kind of neutrality that broadens a target audience as well.
    Which leads me to ask: can anyone think of examples of shattered ‘femininities’? I am as a rule pretty disappointed with the level of attention the ‘female experience’ gets in film.
    Anyway, my two cents.

    • A very good point. “Shattered femininities” would be just as valuable topic, of course. The first films that come to mind would be the films Gena Rowland’s did with Cassavetes, most particularly ‘Opening Night’ and ‘A Woman Under the Influence’.

    • I would agree, annx — the thing is, roles are, and should, be changing for both men and women. Women are much more powerful these days, mentally and emotionally. We are better educated and are more aware of our rights when it comes to our treatment by men. We deserve to be treated better, and are willing to do what is necessary to make sure that we are. Of course, not all women are there yet, but we are getting there.

      Men and masculinity – when it comes to “shattered masculinity” I quote from above:

      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.

      Is this what men consider “masculinity”? To me, it sounds like psychopathy. A complete disregard for the concept of humanity. “Humanity” can be defined as a concept of noble, higher ideals, of thought and creation. “Wake In Fright” and others like it seem to contradict the whole concept of humanity, diminishing the male of the species to a rabid animal with no sense of humanity at all.

      I am not saying that men should be constantly weeping (though, I have seen a SEAL cry when his child was injured. I felt a great deal of respect for him for that.) or ‘weak’. My ideal of a male is one who is both strong and gentle with others. SEALS and Marines come to mind. I grew up around them, and they are some of the most “masculine” males I have ever seen. They are also the most gentle with women, children, and any others who are under their protection or are innocents. Unlike, apparently, all those men who believe that being “male” means being violent and without feelings.

      Just my two cents!

  14. Interesting idea for a post, and a very good call on Copland, and The Wild Bunch. I don’t know the films Warrior, or Wake in fright, so will take your word for it. As for JCVD, I am afraid that I consider any time watching him well and truly wasted. I am not getting The Dirty Dozen in the same context though, as the outcome does not ultimately show their masculinity as shattered, rather bruised and shaken a bit, but that’s just my opinion. It is true that they are no better than the Germans that they kill, but then that theme that is shown in many war films. As for your pair from Scorsese,ditto, no more comment required.
    It brings to mind a similar theme, that of helpless masculinity, in the face of unexpected events. I am thinking of the original Straw Dogs, with Dustin Hoffman helpless, made to look on as his wife is not only raped, but shown to enjoy it, and become attracted to her attacker, as he shows that brutal kind of masculinity women are thought to desire. That was a worrying trend, repeated in many similar stories, where the girl being attacked says ‘No’, but is shown to mean ‘Yes’. In Straw Dogs, Hoffman’s character is shown to prove the old adage, that he can only redeem himself by using the same kind of extreme violence that he has been a victim of.
    This trend continued with Death Wish, Blue Steel, and similar revenge thrillers, up to the more recent Jodie Foster film, The Brave One. To counterbalance the male theme, some of these changed the sex of the protagonist, and had a woman taking revenge for the crime or abuse herself, no longer relying on a man to seek justice. The film-makers tried to get in touch with the growing empowerment of women in society, by reflecting this in the lowest common denominator. Hardly worthy, though understandably better for profits. Here, we had Eden Lake, revisiting the old themes for a new generation of audiences; and America gave us Lakeview Terrace, to address the issue that all previous villains had been white men.
    There is something worryingly compelling about these films, which as you rightly say, have almost solely masculine appeal. Do we want to see them prevail, as in Copland; or are we secretly desiring their comeuppance? Each viewer has their own agenda on that one.
    Great stuff as always James. Regards from Norfolk. Pete.

    • Hey Pete,

      I can understand your resistance to JCVD, but I can assure you this is the only instance in which I would ever recommend a film he is in. It’s more of an art film about a B-grade action start than it is a B-grade action film.

      On The Dirty Dozen, I suppose I would clarify in saying that the state of disgrace and exploited servitude in which they are forced to exist is where I see them as having been obliterated as men.

      Yeah, Straw Dogs is another film that certainly deals with similar themes (and is, like The Wild Bunch, a Peckinpah film, of course). A nasty film that Pauline Kael once described as “the first work of American fascist art” (or something along those lines).

      The revenge films you mention are certainly worthy of their own blog on the rather nasty and brutal hyper-conservative stuff that started to come out of Hollywood in the late 60s and 70s. You are right about the intentions of the gender/race reversal in these films later on, although I’m not sure they are particularly successful in doing much more than finding new ways to represent abhorrent behaviour (as you say… the lowest common denominator).

      I agree our reading of these films depends on the viewer, but also on the individual films. Many of these movies, like Warrior, The Wrestler and JCVD don’t so much ask us to celebrate or condemn, as much as they just remind us of amazing capacity for some men to allow their own narcissism and/or anger to ruin the things they love.

      Always some great insights, Pete!

    • It’s definitely a part of the same kind of structure that has been a part of narrative story telling since the very beginning, I wouldn’t propose it as a new model. I use the term “shattered masculinities” broadly to highlight the emphasis these films place on male-specific failings relating to physical strength, domestic responsibility and/or morality – especially since so many of these films feature actors with whom masculine superiority is associated.

      But you could certainly write about these things in relation to the ‘Heroes Journey’, and it would probably reveal far more than this brief blog.

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