As awards season kicks into high gear, critics are inundated with screeners for films they may have missed the first time around. Here are three prestige pictures—The Place Beyond the Pines, The Spectacular Now, and The Dallas Buyers Club—that are interesting for the competing ways in which they present masculinity in a time of societal flux.
Luke: He can get his own kid. That’s every man’s right.
The Place Beyond the Pines
Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is a story of fathers and sons, and the way sons become their fathers. But it is more than that, a look at masculinity in America and what it means to be a man in a changing world where opportunities are scarce.
Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a carnival daredevil who discovers that during his last turn through upstate New York he fathered a child. He is forced to choose: quit his act and get involved with his kid’s life or push on, same as always. Sticking around, of course, isn’t enough. He needs to earn the respect of Romina (Eva Mendes), his son’s mother. To do that, he needs to earn money. And to do that … well, how does a carny with no work experience, no skills, and a tendency to get violent do that?
In post-industrial America—an America in which there’s minimum-wage work and not much else for the unskilled—Luke doesn’t have many options. He is desperate to live up to his ideal of manhood—a father to his son, a provider to his lover—and that desperation eventually boils over. So he takes to robbing banks, upping the stakes until, eventually, he gets crushed.
Dan: If I were your father, I guess this would be the part where I give you a lecture.
Sutter: If you were my father, you wouldn’t have to give me a lecture.
The Spectacular Now
For much of The Spectacular Now, there is a noticeable lack of male role models in the life of the hard-drinking Sutter (Miles Teller). Sutter lives with his mother, a nurse doing her best to get by while raising a kind but troubled kid.
But then we see what has become of Sutter’s father and we understand that no influence can be better than a bad influence. His dad Tommy (Kyle Chandler) is a drunken lout, more interested in hooking up with the local slattern than having a beer or three with his long-neglected son. Indeed, he sticks Sutter with the tab as he scoots off to catch a case of the clap.
The closest things to positive male role models in Sutter’s life are Dan (Bob Odenkirk), his boss at a men’s clothing boutique, and Mr. Aster (Andre Royo), Sutter’s long-suffering math teacher. Each takes a different approach to straightening Sutter out: Mr. Aster offers the stick (do better in math or I’ll fail you and you won’t graduate) while Dan offers the carrot (you can avoid being downsized by promising not to come into work hammered). But neither has enough influence over the boy to set him on the right path.
Sutter needs a father, not a father figure. But the dissolution of the nuclear family and the lack of stability that results have destroyed whatever chances Sutter might have had at success. And it’s not long before his pathologies threaten the stability of Aimee (Shailene Woodley), another fatherless child floating through modern America, trying to find something on which to grab hold.
Ron: I got a newsflash for y’all: ain’t nothin’ out there that can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days.
Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club isn’t terribly interested in fathers. But it is fascinated by the way traditional conceptions of masculinity initially may have facilitated the spread of AIDS—and then helped get the disease under control.
Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a man’s man in mid-1980s Dallas, running scams at the rodeo when he isn’t fixing the electrical systems on oil rigs or bedding trailer trash skanks two at a time, coke-rings around his nose and Jack Daniels in his gut. That excess comes back to haunt him, however, as he catches HIV from one of his conquests.
When the doctor who diagnoses him asks if he has engaged in homosexual relations recently, Ron snarls that he’s no "faggot." HIV? That’s for queers and junkies. He loves the ladies and takes his drugs nasally, thank you very much.
But Ron definitely has HIV. And as he comes to grips with that fact, he must also come to grips with the fact that his friends have abandoned him. He’s no longer welcome in his local watering hole or at his place of business. He even gets evicted from the trailer park in which he lives. After overdosing on the retroviral AZT—at the time going through FDA testing—he heads to Mexico to concoct a cocktail of unapproved drugs.
Discovering a better way to keep his disease under control, Ron also stumbles into a business opportunity: He can sell his blend of drugs to similarly desperate men. This brings him into contact with the "faggots" he once so despised—and with them comes a modicum of compassion. His fight to live (and to save the lives of others) gives him new purpose, and helps him redefine what it means to be a man.
All three of these examinations of masculinity are interesting in spurts and all three have their problems. The Place Beyond the Pines is the most ambitious, in part due to its disregard for narrative conventions surrounding time lapsed on screen. Cianfrance discards the flow of the story in order to rather pedantically drive home the point he wants to make: The sins of the father are revisited upon the son.
The Spectacular Now, meanwhile, is the most heartfelt of these pictures. There’s a real pain in Sutter’s eyes; you can feel him struggling to make sense of his life in a world that doesn’t quite know what to do with him. Unfortunately, it feels a bit slight.
Dallas Buyer’s Club is probably the best of the three, and McConaughey deserves the buzz he’s receiving for his starring turn. But the film feels something like a Hallmark-special-by-way-of-HBO. We are in the theater to learn a lesson about tolerance and compassion and acceptance, and we’re rarely allowed to forget that fact.