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  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

The Wound, South African director John Trengove’s excellent 2017 debut, showcased a rare talent for exploring the universal through the arcane, detailing fraught masculinity coming to crisis during a Xhosa initiation rite. Now, with his English-language follow-up, Manodrome, Trengove performs a disappointing reverse alchemy, creating an all-too-recognisable setting that yields few precise insights into the troubled male archetypes – all machismo and masochism – who stagger through it.

Kudos, however, to Jesse Eisenberg, proving again that there are few actors of his generation less concerned with their character’s likeability. His Ralphie (who, with his bright copper hair and nervous charge, is essentially a human Duracell) is an inarticulate, recently fired father-to-be, now working as a low-grade Uber driver. Whatever tenderness exists between him and his pregnant girlfriend Sal (Odessa Young, good in a thanklessly marginal role) dissipates as financial pressures and the petty humiliations of his gig job mount. His only outlet is the gym, a windowless bunker playing skull-crushing thrash metal, populated with bulging He-Men at whom Ralphie, bulked up himself but not remotely comparably, can only gaze in jealous, barely disguised homoerotic desire. He’s a self-loathing stew of homophobia, incipient violence and daddy issues, which makes him ripe for recruitment into Manodrome, a cult of mantra-chanting, proudly misogynistic, voluntarily celibate men run by ‘Dad Dan’, played with snake-charmer charisma by Adrien Brody.

Having set up this promising premise, Manodrome quickly devolves into dourness, not extreme enough to be satirical dystopian speculative fiction like, say, Joker (2019) or Fight Club (1999), but also not grounded enough to be as shocking as something like Justin Kurzel’s desperately chilling mass-murderer true story Nitram (2021). Trengove’s humourless screenplay is at once heavy and hollow, tying us to Ralphie’s perspective, which is not an especially illuminating place to be. With little sense of interiority written into his character, his motivations for later acts of sudden, appalling viciousness seem as mysterious to him as they are to us.

Worse, it makes you fear the influence of men like Dad Dan a little less if, for all their deviousness, they cannot recognise in their midst a man too broken even to be useful as a blunt weapon in their toxic ideological wars. When Manodrome ends – on a semi-mystical note of deus-ex-machina grace and dubious sympathy that Ralphie has done little to earn – the only insight that lingers, like testosterone souring in the glands, is that the most dangerous men are also the most unhappy. But we knew that already, didn’t we? Just like we know it doesn’t make their victims any less dead.