With any kind of satire, there’s a balance that must be struck in order for it to achieve its goal, especially when dealing with material that’s sensitive in nature. Most recently, audiences can look to the strangely polarizing response to Oscar-winning writer/director Taika Waititi’s exploration of Hitler youth in wartime Germany via Jojo Rabbit. To some, it painted the Germans as too sympathetic and Hitler as too silly; while others found it too light on the dramatic aspects, detracting from the emotional beats meant to land like anvils. Writer/director Onur Tukel walks a similar line with his long-awaited political dark comedy The Misogynists, a film which is bound to gain its detractors and celebrants in equal measure as Waititi’s. At first, one might expect a film portraying several hours after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016 as either leaning strongly in one political direction or another, but Tukel wisely takes aim at everyone from the Left, the Right, the Middle, and the abstainers. The end result is a project that’s thoughtful, darkly funny, and strangely prescient.
The night of November 8th, 2016, holds many emotions. For Cameron (Dylan Baker), it’s elation as he sees Trump’s win as the start of a return to male supremacy. For coworker Baxter (Lou Jay Taylor), it’s less a cause of celebration and more an awareness that the news will severely upset his wife Alice (Christine M. Campbell). Staged largely like a one-set play, the two men hang out in Cameron’s hotel room, their conversation, and conversations with people coming in and out of the room, focus on the election and all the things voters hung upon it: immigration, race relations, gender equality, and more.
Based on some cursory research, it’s shocking to discover that The Misogynists first premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October 2017. The shock isn’t due to the fact that it’s getting a limited release so long after its debut as that happens frequently in the industry, but for how future-thinking Tukel’s dialogue is when considering its date of origination. The film is clearly inspired by the 2016 election results, but the content within — the matters of debate, the language utilized by the characters — feels very present. In an early sequence, when the audience is still getting to know Cameron and Baxter, Cameron refers to the election results as being the harbinger of an age of truth, a reaction to Trump’s willingness to say what others are thinking. When challenged by Baxter about the factual nature of some of Trump’s comments pre-election, Cameron shrugs it off as the business of being a politician. It’s the exact kind of deflection that happens all the time in any defense of Trump’s comments or behaviors, whether as a candidate, President-Elect, or as President. As the film continues, Cameron comes to represent the kind of individual to whom Trump connected with deeply, someone who saw themselves as the victim of other people’s choices while simultaneously holding themselves above others. We see this in 2020 when Senator Lindsey Graham comes to the defense of President Trump for the same moral actions Graham attacked during President Clinton’s tenure. We see this in 2020 when groups mirror and mimic the president’s words and those who see them as a call to action, leading to attacks on journalists, immigrants, and others. There’s something deeply terrifying about Cameron pulling out a gun, declaring to Baxter that with Trump’s election, owning one is more important than ever as civil war may be just around the corner. It is a paranoid delusion amplified by collective belief. The argument for stockpiling weapons can be heard as much online and in the streets even now as in this film which was first released in 2017.
But Tukel doesn’t just go for Trump’s supporters, as the detractors are also not so innocent. Through a simple application of dialogue, Tukel highlights how the common usage of derogatory terms has become psychologically common place across the board. In conflict set-up between Cameron and his wall-sharing neighbor, there’s an expectation that Cameron will resort to some sort of denigrating language, but Tukel purposefully includes a moment for the audience where we overhear the complainant’s own use of improper language in reference to Cameron. She references the color of his skin while commenting on his selfish attitude. The color of his skin is as irrelevant to her issue with him as her visible attributes are to Cameron about her, yet they both are willing to apply language designed to dismantle the other. In moments like these and others, Tukel not only highlights the glaring similarities between the aggressor and the aggrieved, but also the persistent perpetuation of the same conflicts again and again. The ending, Tukel not-so-subtly suggests, will only end one way without a shift in perspective.
What’s particularly great about the narrative ecosystem Tukel employs is that this interpersonal conflict between Cameron and his fellow hotel guests is a prime example of individualism versus social responsibility. Cameron believes that his right, as a guest, to do as he pleases in his room supersedes the needs or desires of his fellow guests. It’s a microcosm of society as a whole, and it wonderfully undercuts the claptrap almost perpetually spewing from Cameron. Via Baker’s horrifyingly believable performance, Cameron is someone who truly believes he deserves to be catered to and treated exceptionally by virtue of his status and station, even if the audience doesn’t have a clue what that is. When placed against other characters, such as Taylor’s more moderate colleague Baxter, Cameron’s perspectives are less about improving lies and empowering others as it is a preservation of self at the expense of others. Viewed in this way, Tukel has an explicit view of what that thinking leads toward, as suggested above. This becomes particularly clear when the narrative extends further beyond the hotel to include two prostitutes played by Ivana Milicevic (Casino Royale) and Trieste Kelly Dunn (Banshee). Dunn’s Amber is particularly sickened by the election results and is convinced by Milicevic’s Sasha to join her for an appointment with Cameron. Now, up to this point, most of Cameron’s caterwauling about women has been about their controlling nature toward men and their deep desire to be dominated. He’s masculine bravado and Sasha and Amber seem like capitalism in motion, a place where politics are avoided to maintain bedfellows. In this instance, they have something that Cameron wants and Tukel sets up this ideological contest on purpose to see which one is strongest and able to survive a test. At this point, Tukel’s seeming prognostication truly takes root as the coming together of men and women on this day, within this circumstance, can only end one way in order for The Misogynists to truly examine and skewer the subject matter.
Strangely enough, what’s funny about Tukel’s film is that none of it is funny when looked back upon through the lens of time: the shallow optimism; the notion that not voting is the same as voting for the opposition; the fact that the concerns of women were so deeply ignored as to allow, not the man, but the ideas within the current administration to flourish; the kind of personal hedonism which looks down upon all the events which got us to each moment of our present without any kind of reverence or aw; the kind of personal philosophy which sees yourself as the victor simply for having been born of a color or financial class; the kind of personal perspective which fails to see how otherism doesn’t protect us, but separates us, weakens us. If the hotel is the microcosm, the metaphorical home for humanity, then Tukel seems to suggest that there’s more in danger than just one upset guest, more at stake than one bad night’s sleep.
In partnership with the Charlotte Film Society, The Misogynists will screen in Charlotte, NC at VisArt Video from February 21st – 27th with writer/director Onur Turkel in attendance for a Q&A after the screenings on February 21st, 22nd, and 23rd. Head to the Charlotte Film Society’s website for more information on the screenings and to purchase tickets.
In select theaters beginning February 14th, 2020.
For information on screenings, head to Factory 25.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.