Written and Directed by John Trengove.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Adrien Brody, Odessa Young, Sallieu Sesay, Philip Ettinger, Ethan Suplee, Caleb Eberhardt, Lamar Johnson, Brian Anthony Wilson, Adam Wade McLaughlin, Jonah Wharton, Matthew Lamb, Evan Jonigkeit, Gheorghe Mureșan, Zia Anger, and Garrett Richmond.
Conflicted about his girlfriend’s pregnancy, Ralphie’s life spirals out of control when he meets a mysterious family of men.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Manodrome wouldn’t exist.
This is not intended to be a knock against Jesse Eisenberg as a person or his appearance, but he is perfect, organic casting in writer/director John Trengove’s Manodrome as the broken Ralphie, dealing with familial abandonment trauma, body image, and repressed gayness with anger issues boiling underneath the surface, who slowly finds himself hypnotized by an incel “family” led by Adrien Brody’s Dan preaching cult gibberish about being beautiful and taking control of their lives, encouraging him to neglect his pregnant wife Sal (Odessa Young) and eventually disappear from her life altogether without notice. It’s more of an acknowledgment and reminder that he often excels at playing socially maladjusted weirdos but can also find a complex richness within the character that is visibly pronounced in the body language of the performance.
This is also a classic example of a film that is a bit all over the place due to a controlled, messy script that is in tune with how lost the central character is in life. Admittedly, there are a few moments where John Trengove takes the narrative a bit too far in the violently psychotic breakdown direction, yet in some cases also wisely blurs the line between what happens and what is a wish-fulfillment imagination on behalf of Ralphie. It’s also not presenting that in the clichéd fantasizing and then cutting back to reality routine, but with nuance and a fitting layer of confusion. Most importantly, one mostly comes away with a fundamental working knowledge of how each of Ralphie’s pains connect as a hurtful cause and effect.
Make no mistake about it, Manodrome is also not defending this man-baby. It is unquestionably clear that John Trengove wants viewers to pity Ralphie, all while starting a vital conversation surrounding the cultist manipulation that has become the incel/Men Going Their Own Way movement, investigating why some find this circle so appealing. It would have been simple and on the nose to satirize or mock this culture, but John Trengove is doing something much more intriguing, exploring how this transformation happens.
There is a trade-off in that presenting the group in-person led by a quack with money offering similarly broken men the opportunity to live in his humongous home feels less authentic than depicting this by way of online forums notorious for unlocking and triggering some of this behavior in the world we live in, although it is more cinematic and genuinely unsettling watching Ralphie falling in with these troubled souls.
Again, this goes back to Jesse Eisenberg’s uncomfortable performance, leering at male bodybuilders while working out at the gym, seemingly unable to mentally accept that he is sexually attracted to men. He also still hasn’t dealt adequately with abandonment trauma from his father walking out on him on Christmas as a child, which explains why he has convinced his partner, Sal, to give birth to their baby even if he doesn’t seem financially stable enough to support them, working as struggling Uber driver who is morally comfortable pocketing left behind items from passengers so he can sell them for quick extra money. The fact that Dan and everyone in the masculinity group refer to themselves as Dad only makes Ralphie an easier target for indoctrination.
It also might not seem this way initially, but the script has put thought into why Sal has stuck around with Ralphie to this point and puts up with his toxic mood swings (he’s always finding something to criticize her over and doesn’t seem too interested in reciprocating her sexual appetite, presumably because of his strange hangups with body image, combined with denying his true sexual identity), with brief exposition that they trauma bonded over rough pasts. Similarly, the film is also concerned with how much more Sal can take of this, especially considering Ralphie’s behavior toward her is becoming more volatile due to his involvement with a group she doesn’t know about.
In a moment of convenient writing, when the group is out and about in public, they run into the estranged former partner of one of their own, shocked and wondering why he left without saying anything to her. The scene works because the facial expressions from Jesse Eisenberg accurately demonstrate awareness that he is leaning into becoming the worst possible version of himself and is disgusted with himself. From there, John Trengove tries to do a bit too much with the character’s journey, but Jesse Eisenberg is effectively creepy, tragic, and pitiful every step of the way. It is so damn easy to get invested in this loser’s downward spiral.
Ambitious to a fault, Manodrome remains unsettlingly gripping throughout, with an exacting, tough-to-shake performance from Jesse Eisenberg.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com