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May 2011


cast: Darren Healy, and Nora-Jane Noone

director: Brendan Muldowney

84 minutes (18) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
High Fliers DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


Masculinity is in crisis. Once upon a time, a man was a man and that man ruled the world; he was a father, a warrior, a breadwinner and a protector and the universe revolved around him. Then the universe began to change as all of those people who were not men decided that it was unfair that the universe only revolved around men and so they too became warriors, breadwinners, parents and protectors because, aside from being grossly unfair and dehumanising, the male monopoly on power had resulted only in widespread death, destruction and misery. Robbed of their monopoly on access to certain roles, men began to lose sight of what made them men.

While women and other disenfranchised groups cleared spaces and began working towards disentangling their identities from the broad social stereotypes and expectations places upon them, masculinity became increasingly marginalised as a measure of identity. To be a man was to be complicit in the patriarchal oppression of women and so men began to look to their sexuality, their nationality, their social class, and their politics for self-definition before they looked to their gender.

Spotting a gap in the marketplace of ideas, some thinkers (both male and female) have attempted to disentangle the concept of masculinity from the concept of patriarchy on the grounds that individual men can also be victims of the patriarchal oppression of gender expectations. However, for every reasoned attempt to investigate what it means to be a man in the modern world there are dozens of misogynistic rants that appropriate the language of gender identity politics in order to justify some under-threat male privilege meaning that masculinity has never been successfully reclaimed and the concept remains in crisis. Savage, the first feature-length film from experienced short-film director Brendan Muldowney, is the story of one man's attempt to come to terms with his own masculinity in the wake of a vicious assault.

Paul Graynor (Darren Healey) is a professional photographer working in Dublin. Lacking real friends, his only connection to the wider world is his father who, though once a tough guy, is now in a care home where he is entirely dependent upon a female nurse (Nora-Jane Noone). Paul is a shy and introverted man who looks out at the world from behind designer specs and long glossy hair. His quiet manner, his lack of professional ambition and his refusal to act upon the obvious romantic interest shown in him by his father's carer mark him out as a man living outside of traditional gender roles. Then, one night, he is pulled into an alleyway by a pair of thugs who rob him, scar his face and then castrate him, before running off.

When Paul awakes, he finds himself gripped by terror: Around every corner there lurks a mugger and in every alleyway there glints a knife. Taking advice from his (male) doctor, Paul soon comes to realise that a more masculine outlook on life might help him to overcome the fear and find himself in the wake of his castration. Initially, Paul's dalliances into manliness seem entirely reasonable as he joins a gym, takes some self-defence classes, and shaves off his luscious locks. However, as the weeks tick by and Paul overdoses on male hormones and illegal steroids, his conception of masculinity starts to become decidedly ugly. First he buys a knife, then he picks fights, and then he kills a sheep. As Paul's behaviour slowly spirals out of control, it becomes increasingly clear that the only way he will find himself is by seeking out and killing the men who castrated him.

Savage owes a great debt to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). Scorsese's tale of a brutalised man, seeking some sort of redemption or meaning in New York's seething cauldron of crime and sleaze, is here reinvented as a man seeking himself in a version of Dublin that heaves with men seeking to define themselves through violence. In fact, Savage's Dublin is almost a negative image of Taxi Driver's New York as it tells the story of a man lost in a city full of Travis Bickles who comes to realise that the only way to be happy is not to fight against the tide of violence but to surrender to it completely. Unfortunately, while there is a good deal of potential in these themes and references, Savage is let down by weak characterisation, lugubrious pacing and a lack of anything substantial to say about either being a man or gender politics in general.

Muldowney does a wonderful job of presenting masculinity as a form of drug-like insanity that bubbles out of the cracks in the pavement and destroys the lives of the men it infects. However, despite numerous opportunities to do so, he never successfully interrogates this vision of masculinity and so it remains frustratingly under-developed. For example, Paul's father is supposed to have been a violent man in his youth but we never learn how this might have impacted Paul's development. Was his avoidance of traditionally male characteristics a reaction against his father's brutality? Was his insane quest for manliness an attempt to capture his father's approval?

The film never bothers to look below the surface of Paul's mind and so the film's gender politics remain abstract and poorly articulated. Paul's relationship with his father's nurse might also have been developed in such a way as to show the impact of female attitudes on Paul's sense of identity and his ideas about what makes a man but instead of forming a sounding board for Paul's opinions, Michelle (Nora-Jane Noone) finds herself trapped in a role that consists of nothing more than making doe eyes at a man who is clearly losing his marbles. Even Paul's initial, and much more muted, attitude towards male gender roles could have been used as a way of picking apart both what it means to be a man and the need to live up to those expectations, but elaboration came there none, and so Savage's conceptions of masculinity remain under-explored and scarcely believable.

Despite being only 84 minutes long, the film's refusal to dig very far into Paul's character or motivations means that Savage drags terribly. With nothing of psychological substance to engage with, the film saunters aimlessly from gym to alleyway, and pub to flat, with the eventual outcome of Paul's gender crisis never in doubt for a second. What's worse is that the pacing of Paul's descent into madness is so uneven that, when Paul does snap, he goes from 'a bit unhappy' to 'mad as a badger' in hardly any time at all resulting in a jarring change of tone as the film shifts from the dully muted blue-grey tones of introspection and despair to the blood-soaked scarlet absurdity of a risibly gruesome climax.

The concept of a crisis in masculinity is undeniably an interesting one but Savage seems more of a victim of this crisis than a commentary upon it. Having asked the question of what it means to be a man in the modern world, Muldowney fails to see past male complicity in patriarchal oppression and so he struggles to come up with any conceptions of masculinity that are not anchored in adolescent willy-worrying and cartoonish levels of violence.

Savage seems to suggest that, much like Englishness, masculinity is a value that is hopelessly and irredeemably debased but, by suggesting such a simple psychological line between castration and the need to engage in acts of violence, Savage is contributing to that baseness by saying that being a man means either having a set of bollocks or stabbing people. Of course, it could well be that the film is correct and that, much like Englishness, masculinity should be left to the bigots and the thugs but Savage does not even try to suggest an alternative.

When Shane Meadows' This Is England (2006) put the boot into English nationalism, it at least hinted at the possibility of a more inclusive and multicultural vision of Englishness anchored in tolerance and respect for difference. By suggesting that violence is an unavoidable part of the male condition, Savage is simply failing in its job to stir the cultural pot and make us think about the issues it raises and, as such, it can only be considered a failure.

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