Masculinity in the Wasteland

If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it

― Cormac McCarthyThe Road

***WARNING: SPOILERS FOR A QUIET PLACE AND IT COMES AT NIGHT***

There is something about post-apocalypse and manhood. They just seem to go so well together.  When the trappings of modernity are stripped away it allows for the essential nature of human nature to come to the fore. Think about it. The Road is about a father and son.  The Mad Max series focuses on the adventures of a lone man against a world of chaos. And my first, unpublished novel was inspired by ideas of masculinity, and found its way into a world where society has collapsed.  When the world goes to shit, are you going to be able to rely on your men?

Humans, but men in particular, have to always be ready for the worst. Traditionally at least, the role of breadwinner has been on men’s shoulders. It’s very easy to scoot through life watching Netflix and gulping Doritos, but if the shit hits the fan, do you really want to be lugging around a beer belly? I’ve taken to thinking the apocalypse is going to look nothing like the nightmares seen in scenarios like The Road and  Mad Max, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready, either.

Two recent post-apocalyptic movies have recently explored this territory, specifically looking at familial ties when the world ends. A Quiet Place and It Comes At Night are both billed as horror films, which is an interesting decision from both a stylistic and marketing perspective . Both are certainly terrifying in their own ways, though the former relies more on shock and awe, while the latter is truly one of the creepiest films I’ve seen in a long time. I found both movies to be exemplars of modern movie storytelling, great examples of how to do world building, so important when all you have is 90 minutes to tell the tale. Interestingly both take completely opposite views of the family and the role of the father.

Let’s start with A Quiet Place. You probably at least heard about this one  because it has a cool Signs-esque gimmick, in that  the aliens (this is discovered in the wonderful first 10 minutes, so no spoiler here) that hunt down the remnants of humanity have super sensitive hearing. This is also obviously a Christian movie, and a movie about the power of love. There are many hints to this: the family partaking in grace, the pro-life message where they decide to give birth to a new baby (hint: babies scream), and even a scene at a waterfall, the sound of which allows the characters to talk openly.

The family around the table, praying before the meal.

The mother and father in A  Quiet Place have strict gender roles, but their children challenge these roles. The son is, for want of a better word, a bit of a pussy, while the daughter – who requires hearing aids – is tough and independent. Both of the children were affected by the loss of their younger brother. The daughter wants to repent for failing him, and the son, being helpless at the time, only feels more so. The film has many metaphors for traditionalism, and almost has a Benedict Option ethos running through it. The alien monsters can be seen as vectors of modernity. Their sensitive hearing means that they attack any noise. Like the prog bug men of our world, they pounce on anything suspicious. Even a child. The waterfall I mentioned earlier can be seen as God’s grace, a place of solitude in the world where His voice protects His children from the worries of the outside world.  More than anything, the movie ends with the ultimate display of love. The father, who has worked tirelessly to protect his family and make a good life for them, sacrifices himself before the aliens/bug men and allows his children to escape unharmed. On the whole, the movie is extremely positive when it comes to the power of parenthood. John Krasinski, who directed and wrote  the film, and starred as the father, said that when he made the movie ‘I was already in a state of terror about whether or not I was a good enough father.’ If he acts anything like the father in the movie when the world ends, he can die happy.

Where A Quiet Place is explicitly Christian, It Comes At Night is purely materialist in its world view. And it is far more scary for it. First, and this is a bit of a spoiler, we never discover what the heck ‘it’ is, which ultimately is part of the genius of the film. It keeps you guessing the whole time, on the edge of your seat, and even after the credits role you are going to keep thinking about this movie. It has a lucid quality to it, a fever dream pitch of film making. But at the end the power of its nihilism takes hold. You begin to realise that this is how people would tear each other apart if all they have to hold on to is sustenance, shelter or blood, and no higher calling.

There is a lot to unpack in this film. It’s a microcosm of the collapse all set within one house. It touches on many subjects: the prisoner’s dilemma, open/closed borders, sexual desire and adultery. But firmly front and centre is again the role of manhood when it comes to protecting family. You could say it explores toxic masculinity (though I shudder at that phrase). Like the best horror – The Thing, The Night of the Living Dead – it turns out that all along the monster is us.

The relationship between families goes from tense, to jovial, to holding-a-knife-to-each-others-throat.

Again, we are witness to a family trying to survive while the world around them collapses. But this time, something feels a little off. Is it Travis, the teenage son who sneaks around the house and has strange nightmares? Is it the newcomers who might have brought the disease with them? Or is it Paul, the father who will protect his wife and son at any cost. You never know who to trust and most of the tension comes from Paul who is never happy with any answers. This is completely at odds with the other father, Will, whose family is let into the boarded up house. Will was a mechanic when things like that mattered, someone who worked with his hands, and as the film progresses we realise that he is the one with compassion. Paul, on the other hand, was a history teacher (he mentions his knowledge of Rome) and it seems that as a Bubonic Plague like virus kills everyone, he expects total collapse.  He becomes completely paranoid, with a strict set of rules and a shoot-first policy.  These competing fatherly ideologies square off, and in the end there can only be one.

Like with A Quiet Place this film deals with the modern world, only it is far more pessimistic. Where the former clung to hope,  the latter wallows in despair. The truly horrific part, the part that will give you existential dread once you realise the truth, is that for all the tragedy that unfolds none of it mattered, right from the start. It was entirely for nothing. The monster is inside the house. Now, given that Paul’s family is mixed race, it’s not hard to see them as representative of the modern decline. Travis is just a little horn dog whose closest companion is an animal. Sarah acts the tough woman and forceful wife but when push comes to shove she can’t pull the trigger. And Paul as already shown is a complete degradation of what it means to be a family man. He has to put up a front and pretend it is to protect, when in reality he is just as blind the truth as everyone else.  Modernity rots you from the inside, and like a disease it spreads and infects the innocent.

What is it about the post-apocalypse that makes it such a good playground to explore family and fatherhood? Is it that in the fight to survive we revert back to what has always worked? Is it because the collapse is merely an extension of modernity, and so makes for a great setting to explore present ills? It can be all of this. These two films are excellent in their own right, but in particular as explorations of what it means to be a man.  With my own novel I am exploring more the role of men, and not necessarily fatherhood, but the decaying remnants of modernity have made for some great set pieces so far.