A crowd of anonymous, faceless, and shirtless white male bodies undulate ominously and menacingly throughout the opening credits of Andrew Neel’s Goat, an official selection in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Dramatic competition. The scene has no bearing on the events to follow, which depict the horrors of hazing that college-aged males can inflict on each other. It merely foregrounds the story in a conceptual realm as “about masculinity with a capital M,” according to Neel.
To shoot the scene, Neel instructed the young men to perform an innocuous chant before a high frame rate Phantom camera, which then extended roughly four seconds of footage into a haunting three-minute sequence. It is an apt microcosm for the movie as a whole, which exposes the unhealthy violence and sexuality that lurk under the facades of normalcy we complicity accept as a part of our socially constructed manhood.
As Ben Schnetzer’s protagonist Brad Land gets deeper into the fraternity pledging process, the rituals meant to sow the bonds of brotherhood between the new members slowly expose just how out of place he is in the group. Brad chooses to subject himself to these rites of passage in an effort to reclaim his masculinity following an incident that leaves him feeling castrated. When talking with Schnetzer about why he thinks anyone would willingly undergo such tribulations, he speculated on the lack of opportunities in our social cohesion. “It used to be like, just surviving was a rite of passage – whereas for a certain group of people, it’s different nowadays.” Goat excels at depicting just how alluring fraternities are for young men seeking something to center them in a turbulent time while also positing the collateral damage they cause cannot be overlooked.
Brad does not ultimately find the solution to his problems in the fraternity, but he does not find them in himself, either. Salvation from the cruelty of his Greek brothers comes by way of his biological brother, Brett. Though the film’s primary focus is chronicling the lurid details of Brad’s hazing process, a quiet narrative of Brett’s maturation from a free-wheeling womanizer to a level-headed studious man emerges. Brad seeks manhood, and through that process, Brett ends up finding it for both of them. Neel said he hoped this character was who the audience went away wanting to emulate, since “he learns that his way of being a man is not necessarily either a) always good and b) the only way that a man can be.”
That Brett is played by child star-turned-sex symbol Nick Jonas is not insignificant to the power of Goat. While all other actors in the film’s fraternity come bearing little to no iconography, “Nick has been really becoming an adult in public,” said Neel. “He’s been going through this masculine change and transition, obviously internally as a human being – but also externally in the press and the media. So it was interesting that the movie dealt with those issues and that he himself has been going through that whole process.” Jonas’ masculinity informs not only his performance but also the way in which audiences interpret it.
Ever since his notorious shirtless photoshoot for Flaunt, paying homage to Mark Wahlberg’s iconic Calvin Klein pictures from the 1990s, Jonas has not been shy about displaying his body and owning his sexuality. As he distanced himself from his Disney Channel past, he slimmed down and bulked up. But in his maturation, Jonas does not necessarily fit the model of the typical “hardbodied” male star. For one, even as a heterosexual man, he is not afraid to embrace gay fans who view him as a sex symbol. That Jonas can be an effective vessel for a positive message of masculinity speaks volumes for the transformation of the American male over the past few decades.
Ever since the moral malaise of the 1970s, the privileged status of (white) American men has always seemed a bit shaky. In her classic text Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, Susan Jeffords posited that the hypermasculine machismo emanating from series like Rambo, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard were a response to this perceived threat of patriarchal upheaval. In the hard bodies of stars like Sylvester Stallone were a reflection of President Reagan, who promised American renewal in the face of domestic and international turmoil. The masculine body represented a unified, redemptive nation in the 1980s, one that could achieve success through strength in the face of existential crises posed by the feminist and civil rights movements. This image softened a little in the 1990s, Jeffords later wrote, as post-Cold War realities necessitated a more internalized manhood.
In the 2010s, men still face supposed threats to their hegemonic power on three fronts. First, the lingering effects of the 2008 recession have diminished economic prospects across the board for Americans, giving rise to more egalitarian arrangements and two-earner households. Second, continued clamoring for gender equity from the feminist movement has called more patriarchal structural arrangements into doubt. Finally, the surge in public support for LGBT rights has destabilized the supposition of straight male primacy.
But based on the portraits of masculinity that emerged from this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, one could easily assume that these changes were hardly a cause for concern at all. Like Nick Jonas, men both on screen and off at Sundance choose to embrace the shifting definition of what it means to be a man in 2016 America. These actors, through many different character journeys and genres, showed that what some factions of our society might call the “softening” of the American male can actually prove quiet enriching.
The paradigmatic figure for this masculinity at Sundance may be John Krasinski. He arrives as both the star and director of dramedy The Hollars, by all accounts a quintessential Sundance movie, just a week after making waves as the star of Michael Bay’s Benghazi action-thriller 13 Hours. For this role, the already well-bodied Krasinski buffed up to Men’s Health cover status. But rather than bask in this new physique, he poked fun at himself on Instagram and even said that wife Emily Blunt hates the transformation and would rather have him “doughy” again.
Along with Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd (also represented at Sundance in The Fundamentals of Caring), Krasinksi is the latest in a line of new cultural male archetypes. People get the hard body but with a soft sell. Winking nods to the conscious construction of their frames have become the new normal, perhaps a natural outgrowth of our social media-heavy society. With more access than ever to the stars, fans expect a greater sense of candor from the actors they pay to lie for a living. Only those who have chosen to abstain from these new forms of communication – Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, etc. – can still effectively maintain such an old-fashioned masculine visage. Even some of the most physically imposing actors working today, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel, put forward a more fun-loving foot on the Internet.
The Hollars shot in summer 2014 – before 13 Hours entered production – so the film cannot be analyzed in light of Krasinski’s toning. But while one might expect a stark division between the mainstream and independent sensibilities, the two films share a remarkable throughline. In both roles, Krasinski plays men struggling with their obligations as a father. As John in The Hollars, he frets at being unable to provide for his pregnant girlfriend, worried by her family’s wealth, his mother’s failing health as well as his lackluster attempts to turn his passion into a vocation. In 13 Hours, the humanizing scene for his mercenary Jack DeSilva comes when his daughters inadvertently announce over the phone that their mother is expecting another child. Presumptively, this provides him the motivation to survive the attacks on the embassy.
It’s a marked contrast from another military role of Krasinski’s, the nearly mute Woody in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. Masculinity for that character meant willful suppression of all emotions, even if it takes his ability to express the slightest affection for his wife and children. Throughout The Hollars, however, John gets goaded out of moping and into welcoming his duties by a crucial member of his family – his mother, Margo Martindale’s Sally Hollar. Even as a brain tumor makes her physically weaker, Sally’s central role in the familial unit gives her great emotional strength. It is she who holds the Hollar men together, ushering her husband through the wreckage of his ailing business and preparing her son John to be a different kind of man. By the end of the film, he still openly admits to being scared, yet the sage advice from the family matriarch seems to have steered his life back on course.
This was far from the only film in the festival where men found strength or renewal from non-traditional sources. Jeff Baena’s Joshy, another step towards the mainstreaming of the mumblecore subgenre, breaks down the weak bonds tying four male friends together. They gather in a country house in lieu of a bachelor party for their buddy, Thomas Middleditch’s Joshy, whose fiancée canceled their nuptials in grand fashion. Rather than confront the elephant in the room, they turn to booze, drugs and strippers before realizing that none of them will provide the comforting embrace they need to move on. The black sheep of the group, Alex Ross Perry’s loquacious Adam, offers the closest thing to catharsis with an intellectual exercise for them all. Mumblecore has traditionally opened up the pedantry and privilege of men for droll mockery while also providing a platform for their grievances; Joshy dares to question the stability of these everyday rituals of the contemporary male.
One of the most divisive films of Sundance 2016, The Daniels’ Swiss Army Man, flips the traditionally testosterone-fueled survival movie on its head. The strangeness of flatulence might draw Paul Dano’s Hank out of his suicidal tendencies and towards the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny, but their bond goes deeper than the crude fart joke. As Manny’s body becomes reanimated and the two men take a surreal wilderness journey, Hank’s acculturation of his new friend goes in a surprising direction. In trying to help Manny prepare to meet the woman he loves, Hank assumes her persona by cross-dressing and role-playing, eventually getting so far into character that homoerotic undertones become overtones. This turn in their relationship does not take the film into overtly gay territory yet also suggest that perhaps the line separating the buddy comedy and the romance is more porous than previously conceived.
On the more traditional front, however, lies Morris from America – which, as its title suggests, does not take place in America. Chad Hartigan’s personal film follows the coming-of-age of Morris (Markees Christmas), a black teenager growing up as the ultimate outsider in small-town Germany. Not unlike Goat, a second storyline unfolds in the background with Morris’ father Curtis (Craig Robinson), a widower who has an even harder time than his son making friends. He goes out to a bar with a group of acquaintances early on in the film but is more often seen sitting alone in the house. Robinson described the character’s motivation as “lead[ing] by example,” trying to provide a pattern of behavior which Morris can emulate.
Yet that behavior is far from the conventional construction of paternity. Curtis must act as both mother and father to Morris in order to bring him up in a healthy household, a duality which he fully accepts. “With the stern stuff, that was my father,” said Robinson of his approach to Curtis. “And then with the understanding, that was a mixture of my mother and father because my father could be understanding as well, but moreso my mom. So I was kind of dancing in between those people.” The strength of the character, in many ways, comes from Robinson finding the fluidity between these two identities rather than compartmentalizing them.
The fraternity boys of Goat may give any reasonable viewer reasons to be fearful about the next generation of men, but contextualizing their raucousness suggests that their behavior is more a product of their age than their generation. At one Q&A for the film, Andrew Neel even suggested cryogenically freezing males from the ages of 18-24 just because of all the hormonal impulses they have for dominance. When thawed out, however, they have a decent set of examples to emulate in culture – at least if the males of Sundance 2016 have their way.
Neel described his film as a modern Lord of the Flies, declaring, “We’re animals, as much as we like to act like we’re not. We’re products of the natural world and we act like it a lot.” As much as that might sound like a condemnation of our species, he cites an anthropological study that undergirds his statement with a little bit of hope. “Essentially, there were a bunch of baboons that were all eating trash from dumpsters, which brought them into proximity with people so they were biting people and causing trouble, and it was usually the alpha male. So they shot all of the alpha males that were biting people and causing trouble, and the culture of the baboon tribe changed within something like three years or five years. Essentially, the beta males were much mellower or less violent, and they all had offspring and even those offspring adopted the beta behavior of the males who were then the dominant males in the tribe. So they found that culture can change.”
If American men can be likened to baboons, hopefully they also possess a similar capacity for cultural change. The 2016 Sundance Film Festival may very well be the year of the beta male, where structural shifts in society forced change beyond a cosmetic level.