‘There’s a Crisis With Men and Violence’: Trump, Culture Wars and the Toxic Masculinity Behind Jesse Eisenberg-Starring Berlin Title ‘Manodrome’

Five years ago, South African director John Trengove’s feature debut, “The Wound,” scored coveted berths at Sundance and Berlin before being short-listed for an Academy Award — even as the powerful gay drama set in the secretive world of Xhosa initiation ceremonies faced angry protests in his home country.

His sophomore effort, “Manodrome,” which plays in competition in Berlin, stars Jesse Eisenberg as a down-at-the-heels Uber driver and expecting father who begins to lose his grip on reality. He’s taken under the wing of a charismatic, self-styled father figure (Adrien Brody), who inducts him into a libertarian masculinity cult, even as his repressed desires — suddenly awakened — push him toward a terrifying descent into violence.

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It’s a zeitgeisty exploration of toxic masculinity with a tour-de-force performance by Eisenberg, playing opposite a gripping Odessa Young as his pregnant girlfriend. Trengove spoke to Variety ahead of the film’s Feb. 18 premiere.

What was the starting point for “Manodrome”?
There was a very distinct moment — I think it was around the election of Donald Trump as the American president — where I had this overwhelming sense that I just didn’t understand the world anymore. It just felt like things were getting so insane.

And then someone gave you Angela Nagle’s “Kill All Normies,” about the online culture wars that brought us the Trump presidency.
At the time, it was all new to me, or virtually new to me, and it had a very grounding effect, like it answered that frustration that I was feeling. There was this one chapter in the book that was about the so-called manosphere, as a loose cluster of online communities that extends to the alt-right and to neo-Nazi movements and a movement that’s actually very old, called Men Going Their Own Way. This fascinating idea that men are destined for greater things than procreation and domesticity. And the ethos of rejecting these roles, the mantle of being tamed and domesticated.

What impact did that have on you?
There’s something so inherently gay about it — that was my first very superficial reaction to it. This idea of men self-isolating and rejecting the so-called “gynosphere,” or the female realm, and nurturing something in this homogenous community. It sparked a lot of things for me as a gay filmmaker.

How did that lead you to Ralphie, played by Jesse Eisenberg?
I had the idea of a character who is conflicted in himself and his sexuality and entering this world. A character that I find terrifying and reprehensible. The image in my head was that this is the kind of guy that I would cross the street to avoid. He represents a visceral terror in me. The exercise became one of describing him, trying to imagine his life and his reality and his priorities and his frustrations. There was this irrational feeling that relates back to this feeling of the world being out of control, and there being some sort of toxic thing that can’t really be defined. I was just trying to get that feeling onto the page — less about trying to understand or empathize with the character, and more about entering this world, and this feeling of things being out of control, and fracturing his reality and our reality.

It’s a complicated balancing act for the audience.
The idea that I had was that we would be tied at the hip with Ralphie, and we wouldn’t have any objective distance. But at the same time, there’s a lot about him that is withheld. We see him wrestling with the world, we see him coming up against all of these obstacles, and in a way, maybe even grappling with his humanity. But then he’s also making these incredibly problematic choices. That became the real tension of the film for me, the push-pull relationship with a character that you can’t completely access and completely like, but you’re with him. And you’re with him for the duration of the film, for better or worse.

There’s also a connection between Ralphie’s violent impulses and the absence of a father figure in his life.
That’s not something that is unique. I think that is so pervasive. That’s the crisis of masculinity, that men are under-fathered. We had a very detailed backstory for Ralphie that we had in mind, but ultimately, in putting the film together, it just felt like it was problematic to open up a traumatized history and imply a direct link between that and just randomly shooting people. That was the statement that I was very careful not to make. Because in America, certainly, and the world, there’s a crisis with men and violence. I think it’s irresponsible to try and explain that or to imply that it happens when somebody is abused as a child or whatever. It doesn’t feel true to me.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as a conflicted man grappling with his desires in “Manodrome.”

Why not?
When these mass shootings happen, who knows what these backstories are? So often it just feels like there’s nothing necessarily inherently wrong. That there’s more just a feeling of entitlement. We all have shitty pasts and difficult childhoods in one way or another, and some are worse than others, but men specifically seem to think it’s okay to sometimes pick up a gun and shoot down a whole bunch of people. For all of those reasons, it just felt too easy, too simplistic, to draw that line directly. There’s a lot of things going on with Ralphie. He’s struggling financially, his girlfriend’s pregnant, he’s conflicted about his sexuality, his dad left him when he was young. But to say any one of those things is the reason why he goes the way he does feels too easy.

Does Hollywood have an unhealthy fascination with masculinity and violence?
In a way this film is a reaction to, or a subversion of that. I think “Taxi Driver” is one example. But obviously violence, especially in Hollywood films, is something that has been so normalized, even glamorized. And surely that has a relationship with the culture and the crisis that the world is in when it comes to men enacting violence on the world. We didn’t want to make another film that plays into those ideas. The point with Ralphie was that he is not some protagonist on a mission, some vendetta, righting some kind of wrong. There’s something inherently inept in him — he’s kind of a child and the world sort of happens to him. He doesn’t drive his own narrative.

What was it like watching Jesse Eisenberg inhabit the role of Ralphie?
Jesse was just a very singular experience. Apart from the fact that he’s a very talented actor, and he’s doing something very bold and different here. There’s just this generosity of spirit, this absolute humility with which he approaches everything, that was just profound. I never quite met anybody like him — sort of self-effacing and funny and obsessed, but who also doesn’t like to take up any space at all. It was a very tough shoot in the winter with a COVID spike. Very tough circumstances. And he, at every turn, just threw himself into everything, without question. I would throw insane things at him. And at the last minute, we’re losing light and we’re changing the scene, and he just goes with it. This unquestioning way in which he threw himself into it was amazing. I almost feel like we wouldn’t have gotten the film made if it wasn’t for him.

After making a small, independent, South African film, was it hard to make the leap to Hollywood?
You go into it thinking, “Oh my God, what is this gonna be like? What don’t I know about what I’m about to do?” There are all these feelings of inadequacy. And then you walk onto set the first day, and you realize that it’s all exactly the same. Film sets the world over have the same kind of messiness and frustration and stress and tension. That was the revelation.

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