Sensitive With A Flamethrower Strapped To His Back: An Examination of the New Alpha Male in Cinema

by: Dominick Mayer

“If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” — Abraham Lincoln

Note: If you haven’t seen the film Bellflower, seriously stop reading this and go check it out right now. Then come back, because SPOILERS.

I’ve recently noticed a strange trend regarding the alpha male on film. Over time he’s ranged from quietly dignified (Eastwood’s Man With No Name), to condescendingly masculine (anything Bruce Willis has ever played), to the recent trend of the sensitive, well-meaning schlub who’s nevertheless a demonstrably heterosexual male through and through (the Apatow camp). In the case of the latter, the interesting evolution comes from the fact that while he eschews many of the behaviors of the traditional alpha (swagger, arrogance, a sense of domination over any room he enters), he is still very much in control of his destiny, and must merely wait for a usually generically appealing woman to discover that beneath the total lack of effort lies a heart of gold that will still yield little to no effort. Somewhat, I digress. More recently, the alpha male has undergone his next evolution. He’s become a little bit sinister.

My favorite example of this new male can be found in Evan Glodell’s brilliant 2011 debut Bellflower. In a lot of ways, Bellflower deconstructs nearly every bashfully shy, hopelessly romantic slacker that’s ever appeared on film. Early on, Woodrow (Glodell) passes his days drinking 40s and drawing pictures of the post-apocalyptic biker gang he and his best friend will one day run when the world ends. He’s the consummate nice guy, a big-talking geek in a sweater vest who just wants to be loved by a woman who’ll also be elusive and voraciously sexual. He gets more than he can handle from Milly (Jessie Wiseman), who warns Woodrow upfront that “I’ll hurt you, and I won’t be able to help it.” Like so many before him, Woodrow ignores this very obvious warning until she indeed hurts him, and before long the entire film is dragged down into emotional Armageddon when Woodrow’s most savage fantasies start coming to life. Or maybe not.

Bellflower depicts the alpha male as lying within all men, waiting to be unleashed by personal tragedy. It’s weirdly allegorical for the current social climate, in which common men are being driven to desperation by a lack of jobs and money to go around, and the need to keep up appearances in a still male-dominated society that they are in control of their own universe. The film also poses a fascinating scenario for exactly what happens when a man can no longer control his world, and in fact has this control aggressively taken away from him: he burns it to the ground. In this case, it’s literal (Glodell spends much of the third act with a flamethrower strapped to his back), but the metaphor holds up with equal power.

This whole point is driven home by a strangely touching late monologue, in which his best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson) compares Woodrow to Lord Humongous from The Road Warrior. See, “Lord Humongous doesn’t ask ‘Who called?’ He doesn’t ask ‘Was it good for you?’ He doesn’t leave the gang just because he fell in love. Lord Humongous dominates his women, and they fucking love him for it.” Whether the film is canonizing this pretty misogynistic ethic or critiquing it has been debated since the film’s release, and the fact that Glodell based much of the film on personal stories doesn’t help to dissuade naysayers.

For my part, I think it’s a bit of both. Through a self-induced apocalypse, Woodrow becomes a demigod walking the earth, with some weed in his pocket, a flamethrower in his back and a twelve-gauge shotgun in his hands. He’s the purest form of torched-earth Americana, a self-percieved coward turned man’s man capable of destroying everything in his path. Like the Civil War-era Lincoln quote I began with, he won’t let the world, or a woman, or anything else destroy him. He’ll do it his own damn self.

Simultaneously, though, the film doesn’t exactly canonize him. Shot in scorched, washed-out colors, California starts to look like a wasteland long before the bloodshed begins. This is a version of the twentysomething male’s world in which nightmares come true, where the women are beautiful and elusive and ultimately conniving, where Wisconsin ex-patriates like Woodrow and Aiden come to find a stoner’s existential fortune. It’s also unforgiving for strangers, and ends in brutality, much of which comes from Woodrow’s stubborn arrogance that nobody would ever dare cross him.

Movies taught Woodrow how to be a man, and he never found a better inspiration, so he became a perverted extreme of manhood. This critique all comes together in the film’s hopeless final shot, in which Woodrow, alone and possibly brain-damaged, sets fire to the remnants of his relationship on a beach. Like the equally flaccid final shot of There Will Be Blood, he’s left no more than a boy with ignorance and regret. He created his own apocalypse, and watched his world burn. He just didn’t plan for what happens when there are no credits to roll.


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