I‘ve always struggled with the concept of masculinity. I’m sure most men have felt the same at one point or another. You’re a man but you don’t feel like one. Lad culture is as toxic and repellent as it is destructive and alienating. I’ve always hated it with an absolute passion and as a result have never engaged with it. I’ve longed for an alternative model of masculinity to appreciate, one that acknowledges the loneliness of modern life. As with all problems, I looked to movies for help and I found it in the filmography of Paul Schrader.
Writer/director Paul Schrader is best known for his screenplays to two Martin Scorsese films: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Both are highly lauded, focusing intently on the psychology of broken, violent men. When it comes to his directorial catalogue, Paul Schrader is no less focused on what it means to be a man. More specifically, what it means to be a lonely man. It’s in Paul Schrader’s three best movies that I’ve found this alternative model.
Each of these films has given me great comfort, presenting models of masculinity that I feel can be looked to for reassurance
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, First Reformed and The Card Counter follow stoic, isolated men as they struggle to give their own lives meaning. Each of these films has given me great comfort, presenting models of masculinity that I feel can be looked to for reassurance. Each has a deep and profound understanding of what it means to feel loneliness as a man.
Mishima follows the life of a historical figure, the celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. Despite being surrounded by fans, agents, acolytes and family, Mishima only finds true satisfaction and comfort in his work. Schrader lets the audience become part of Mishima’s loneliness by depicting almost every scene taking place in his day-to-day life in monochrome, counterposed against the eye-poppingly vibrant and sensually rich colours of the scenes depicting passages from his novels. There is no better film about the basic function of almost all art ever created: escapism. Mishima is rich, successful and fundamentally unhappy. Only when he explores the fictional worlds of his own creations is he able to achieve any measure of satisfaction or elation.
The euphoria of the fictional is emphasised by Philip Glass’s iconic score, which plays the part of Mishima’s muse. We feel the soundtrack swell in moments of inspiration, before it explodes with unrestrained bombastic power at the very climax of Mishima’s creative epiphanies.
Yukio resolves to satisfy himself once and for all by living his life as though he were one of his own fictional characters. Art and reality merge into one in the film’s heart-pounding, final colour sequence, where Mishima stuns the world and seals his fate, ending his life with pain, determination and satisfaction. Mishima couldn’t find his identity through pursuing the masculine tropes of financial success, sex, body-building or military power. He finds it through his own art.
It’s rare to watch a film about masculine identity that explores queer themes without stooping to cheap comedy or stereotypes
Mishima is my favourite film. Despite its darkness, I find it to be a constant source of comfort because it reminds me that loneliness isn’t a flaw or a symptom of failure. It shouldn’t feel shameful and it can be beautiful. You may feel separate from everyone else, permanently isolated and poorly understood by the few that are close to you, but you can understand yourself and find deep comfort in your own company. It’s rare to watch a film about masculine identity that explores queer themes without stooping to cheap comedy or stereotypes, refrains from judging the solitary lifestyle of its main character and celebrates his pursuit of artistic satisfaction. Mishima’s story of dedication and alternative, isolated, focused masculinity never fails to reduce me to tears.
The central characters in First Reformed and The Card Counter live their lives differently to Mishima. Both are former military men, living isolated, regimented lives. First Reformed‘s Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is experiencing an existential crisis. He’s losing his faith, suffering from cancer, deeply in love with a widowed member of his church and increasingly attracted to eco-terrorism after being radicalised by an environmental activist. We follow the cold, empty, grey days of his life as he looks after his church and battles in vain against his own self-destructive thoughts. Schrader presents Toller’s life to us by drawing deeply from the style of French minimalist icon Robert Bresson, keeping his camera static, the music sparse and the pace stately.
Schrader’s style is much the same for The Card Counter, the story of a former Abu Ghraib torturer turned low-stakes professional gambler who calls himself “William Tell” (Oscar Isaac). Consumed with guilt over his actions, anger at the lack of punishment for his cruel superiors and overwhelming loneliness, Tell travels across the USA living a sterile, celibate, almost nonexistent life. He gambles small, making just enough money to keep himself moving on. His masculinity is silent, quiet, determined and guilt-ridden. He’s the best male character that the movies gave us this year.
we live in a lonely world filled with media about groups of people who have active and happy social lives
I watched both films over the course of the last two months and haven’t been able to stop thinking about either since. Unfortunately, we live in a lonely world filled with popular media about groups of people who have active and happy social lives. For example, I struggle with Marvel movies. I take only limited joy in them, and they can often feel like a sugary kick in the teeth. They may be entertaining in the moment, but I feel that they provide me no long-lasting comfort or understanding.
Schrader’s films are comforting because they feel like a dialogue. They do what all great movies should do: focus on their characters until you identify so strongly with them that they’re all that you can think about, months after you watched the final credits roll.
I’ve known what it is to feel empty, to be lonely, to struggle with desperate emotions. The stories of Mishima, Toller and Tell have shown me loneliness from a fundamentally male point of view, reflecting my own experiences back at me, providing an alternative model of masculinity that represents me better than any other. Away from the violence, the fitness, the shouting, the noise, and the drinking games, I’ve found a masculinity of quiet, solitary determination and its been nothing but a continuing source of comfort.
I hope Schrader’s films can comfort you too.