Jesse Eisenberg breaks his dweeby typecast as a disenchanted bodybuilder lured into to a men’s rights group in John Trengove’s intriguing thriller.
Most actors have a moment in their career where they need to make a public display of the fact that there’s more than a single string to their bow when it comes to the type of characters they’re able to play. Jesse Eisenberg has carved a tidy niche for himself as the fusty nebbish who always opts for pen over sword when it comes to social confrontation.
Yet in South African filmmaker John Trengove’s follow-up to 2017’s impressive The Wound, Eisenberg shows us a new weapon in his performance arsenal, his quietly-agonised taxi driver and soon-to-be-father Ralphie is seen furiously chest-pressing in the gym to a soundtrack of oppressive doom metal, then in the post-workout high, posing for some topless selfies in the changing room to lavish in his own ripped torso.
The film co-opts the furiously spiralling structure of the Safdie brothers’ 2017 film Good Time, in that it is a chronicle of Ralphie’s self-engineered downfall via a series of poor (but vaguely understandable) life choices made with the intention of doing right by his partner Sal (Odessa Young). With his rooster-red flattened crop and a single black dot earring, Ralphie comes off as a kindred spirit to Robert Pattinson’s bleach-blond bad boy Connie, albeit without the gift of the gab, which is itself something new for the usually loquacious Eisenberg.
There are elements, too, of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, as the title of the film refers to a monastic men’s rights cult overseen by Adrien Brody’s softly-spoken patriarch Dad Dan. We see Ralphie’s insidious induction into the group and the pally psychological tactics used to tear him away from his heterosexual relationship, though the film doesn’t seem too interested in representing any wider media depictions of incel culture or the designer misogyny practised by someone like Andrew Tate. Some may see this as a softly-softly horror movie, although one in which the majority of the pain and suffering is delivered by stealth.
Despite a committed central performance, Eisenberg doesn’t manage to sell in the idea that, despite his faults – vanity, jealousy, susceptibility, impulsiveness, violent temperament – Ralphie is in fact a holy innocent swept up in the tides of chaos. The film lacks for a sense of high tragedy, and as our anti-hero digs himself into an ever-widening hole, it becomes more difficult to want him to find some modicum of salvation.
Politically, the film’s disconnect from mainstream representations of men’s rights groups allows Trengove to make some wild assertions that might have any armchair psychoanalysts in the room grimacing in discomfort. There’s one particularly off-colour subplot that seems to equate hardcore misogyny with latent homosexuality, but at the point of discomfort the writer-director chooses to fudge the point and whip things into a safer but less edifying direction.
As well as that, Mangrove is another sorrowful paean to the disenchanted post-Trumpian everyman suddenly open to the noxious influence of extremism. Here, with the anxiety of parenthood, the sudden loss of employment, microaggressions at the gym, an eating disorder, all the conditions are met for a revolution against society’s slow process of emasculation. The film’s base elements and intentions are interesting, but it doesn’t offer much in terms of original insight. We know how things are going to go down for Ralphie the first moment we meet him and, unfortunately, Trengove proves us entirely right.
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Published 17 Feb 2023