(director/writer: John Trengove; cinematographer: Wyatt Garfield; editors: Julie Monroe, Matthew Swanepoel; music: Christopher Stracey; cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Ralphie), Adrien Brody (Dad Dan), Odessa Young (Sal), Phillip Ettinger (Jason), Ethan Suplee (Dad Leo), Sallieu Sesay (Ahmet), Evan Joningkeit (Son Brad), Caleb Eberhardt (Son Aaron), Gheoorghe Muresan (Sachiel); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Ben Giladi, Gina Gammell; Capstone Studios, Universal Pictures; 2023-UK/USA)

“Dark take on toxic masculinity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The South African auteur John Trengove (“The Wound”) directs this dark take on toxic masculinity in this bleak,  misogynist and hollow film.

It’s set in some unnamed American industrial city in the Northeast, where there’s high unemployment.

Jesse Eisenberg as Ralphie, is satisfactorily cast against type (plays a gym rat rather than his usual neurotic cerebral type). The carrot-top Ralphie is a vulnerable infantile and self-destructive young man lured into joining a male separatist cult because of his anger issues. In order to “unlock their cataclysmic power” the cult members shun female companionship. This act of male radicalization we are told can lead to violence under the pretense of “taking back power.”

Ralphie, after laid-off on his industrial job, is now working temporarily as an Uber driver. His trauma goes back to when his father abandoned him when he was a youngster on Christmas Day, and he has since that time never felt wanted.

Ralphie’s more anxious now that the holidays are soon approaching. To relax, he spends his free time pumping iron at the gym.

The young man is also concerned over the pregnancy of his girlfriend Sal (Odessa Young), afraid that the relationship will grow more serious and he won’t be able to handle it as the provider he’s supposed to be as a man.

The uptight Ralphie is bothered by even the slightest of things that goes against his beliefs. While in his cab he sees in disbelief, in his rear-view mirror, a woman breastfeeding her baby, and when she spots him staring calls him a pervert and bolts out of the cab. A gay couple make-out in the backseat of his cab, which deeply perturbs him. He’s also unduly upset that a group of Black homos at the gym request a change of music from Heavy Metal to Lycra-snapping pop.

At his gym, a buddy introduces him to a ‘guy group’ who help socially awkward guys like him get re-adjusted to life. Thereby he joins a cult group run by Dad Dan (Adrien Brody), who recruits so-called ‘Sons’ to live in his remote cabin in celibacy as a way to be “released from the Gynosphere.”

The troubled Ralphie reveals his vulnerability, fear and hatred of women, as he joins that hateful cult. Ralphie is likely to become more toxic, as the cult preaches isolation.

It’s a provocative take on male toxicity, hitching itself to the “Taxi Driver” motif, whereby it offers a scathing commentary on society and drives home points on cult-like incel groups but never digs too deeply into them.

Even in its best moments, it only brings us to the problem over male toxicity without taking us further. But, at least, it’s a serious and sensible effort to cover a modern-day hot-button issue that needs to be aired and gives us something to think about.

It played at the Berlin Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 11/2/2023  GRADE: B-