These New Movies Try To Go All "Ban Men," But Only One Succeeds
A fuck-patriarchy streak — uneven though it may be — at the Toronto International Film Festival is uniting a Brie Larson shoot-'em-up, a gender reassignment thriller, and a kaiju drama.
Right before Brie Larson falls to the ground courtesy of a gunshot wound in the upcoming film Free Fire, she rolls her eyes and groans an exasperated “Men.”
Larson is part of a colorful ensemble in Ben Wheatley’s feature-length shoot-out, which is about a gun deal in an abandoned Boston factory that gives way to violence with the inevitability of an intricate domino chain being set off. Her character, Justine, brokered the sale, and happens to be the lone woman in the group of crooks and hired muscle who spend an hour crawling around bleeding, bickering, and trying (with sporadic success) to kill each other. Her exclamation is aimed at the all-too-trigger-happy male characters with which she’s sharing the screen, who are hopelessly eager to turn a business deal into a bloodbath. But it also handily sums up a theme at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (where Free Fire made its premiere) — maybe with an “amirite” tacked on. The annual event, best known as a place at which award campaigns are launched, is shot through with an uneven but unmistakable fuck-toxic-masculinity streak this year, and never more than in its genre fare, where action and sci-fi have gotten all swirled in with gender commentary.
Free Fire, which could have been beamed in from the most Tarantino-smitten moment in the ‘90s, is a movie about men desperate to prove themselves the baddest, and it positions Justine as the sensible one trying to keep her feet in a sea of roiling testosterone. Between snarky gun-for-hire Ord (Armie Hammer, the movie’s MVP), the outsized Vernon (Sharlto Copley), grouchy IRA member Frank (Michael Smiley), his cooler-tempered compatriot Chris (Cillian Murphy), and their various, mostly idiotic, cohorts, Free Fire sets up its nihilistic action by presenting all the ways its characters’ macho posturing serves as kindling for a conflagration. To make the connection unmissable, Ord makes a gun-and-dick comparison right at the top so no one else has to, cracking a joke about how everyone should jerk off before going into a deal like theirs, it being better to be packing “a loaded weapon.”
It’s understood that the group — none of its members master criminals, most of them short on impulse control — is going to end up fighting over something, whether an actual grievance or not liking someone’s sweater. When they do, it’s nasty, funny, cartoonish, and finally just exhausting. The ensemble embraces self-destruction out of spite, snickering at each other’s pain as the body count rises. Free Fire is a cynical affair, an exercise in seeing whether a gun battle can be stretched to movie length, but it’s off-putting really only in its halfhearted implication that Justine is better than the mess the characters find themselves in. She's not really above the fray, but absent of it; the character spends long chunks of time offscreen in a way that suggests Larson's availability for the production was limited. The thing is, the movie does just fine showing how chest-bumping aggression and bullets are a doomed combination. Wheatley didn't need to use his token female as an underdeveloped contrast, treatment glib enough that Larson’s “men” comment might as well have been aimed at her director.
(Re)Assignment, which comes from The Warriors and 48 Hrs. director Walter Hill, has a logline guaranteed to make people angry: Rogue physician Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver) transforms Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), the assassin who killed her brother, into a woman via nonvoluntary surgery as an attempt to alter what she sees as innately male aggression. (Rodriguez spends the first part of the movie in a beard and prosthetics.) In Dr. Kay's words, masculinity is a prison from which she has generously released Frank.
It certainly gets points for boldness, if nothing else.
(Re)Assignment is a neo-exploitation flick that approaches gender politics the way someone trying to knock themselves unconscious might run into a wall. Hill and his co-writer Denis Hamill came up with the idea for (Re)Assignment in the ‘70s, but are tossing it into a very different cultural moment like a brick through a window, using a gender transition as an assaultive act of revenge and as an experiment in essentialism involving changing someone’s nature from the outside.
Or so Hill must hope. (Re)Assignment's plot doesn’t escalate anywhere in particular, and it's too clunky to be any kind of real provocation. The movie is more interested in the spectacle of Rodriguez in the nude as both pre- and post-op Frank ("Nooooo!" Frank howls while clutching reconstructed genitals) than it is in really exploring its own premise: We don't learn how being regarded as a woman does or doesn't change Frank, nor do we learn if Frank’s ease with violence should be chalked up as having anything to do with gender in the first place. Frank starts as a cipher, and stays one, but Dr. Kay is a god complex embodied, a woman who does her own defying of expectations, and also a cross between Dieter Laser in The Human Centipede and Alec Baldwin in Malice. Weaver treats the role as camp, as it should be, given her character turned “ban men” into a surgical inspiration. She's a monster, but the movie leaves you feeling like she’s gotten the win anyway, just because Weaver makes her so much fun.
Unlike the men in Free Fire and (Re)Assignment, the dudes in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal are nice guys, or at least that’s how they’d all describe themselves. There’s Tim (Dan Stevens), the businessman boyfriend who concern-troll-kicks the film's heroine Gloria (Anne Hathaway) out of their New York apartment because, ever since she lost her job, all she’s been doing is partying. There’s also Gloria's elementary school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who she reconnects with after slinking back to her empty childhood home, broke and depressed and determined to get her shit together, and who’s oh so helpful to Gloria, though he’s essentially allowed her to drink professionally by offering her a job at his bar. And then there are his friends (Austin Stowell and Tim Blake Nelson), who join them in getting tanked every night, but who would never step in after Oscar starts getting controlling — and angry that when Gloria chooses to have sex with one of them, it’s not him.
Did I mention this is a monster movie?
It’s, obviously, not a conventional one, but there is a creature, and it’s green and skyscraper-tall and, for legal reasons, has chosen Seoul as its preferred city to attack. How its appearances halfway around the globe are connected to the dramedies of thirtysomething self-loathing that both Gloria and Oscar are struggling through is too wonderful and weird to spoil, but it props up a surprisingly deft story about a particular type of toxic masculinity that has everything to do with wanting to loom large over another person, to keep them cowering in your shadow. Sudeikis lets his character's dark side slowly peek out behind the smarm, between bouts of boozing all night, until we see that he’s a petty tyrant whose sympathy is only extended to others until they defy him. He’s not an arms dealer or a hitman, but he is a force of destruction in his own right.
Gloria is a mess, and Oscar is the kind of person who collects messes, because it provides him with comfort and control — and she starts to realize that he’s not the only man in her life who’s been treating her that way. Colossal is a love letter to kaiju movies, and it’s also the story of a woman battling her way out of the abusive pattern she’s fallen into — a personal drama played out on a giant scale, literally. Free Fire and (Re)Assignment make gestures toward male–female dynamics they don't really get around to exploring, as a way of teasing relevance that's never coheres — the equivalent of a chain store hawking "misandry" T-shirts as the latest hip thing. Colossal, on the other hand, feels as resonant in its imaginative combination of city-wrecking monsters and self-destructive behavior as it does unpredictable. Goodbye #NotAllMen, hello #NotAllMonsters.