Diane Abbott is not the first public figure to generate headlines with the phrase “masculinity in crisis.” (Though she may be the first to use the ungainly word “pornified” in a speech.) I remember it being quite the bumper-sticker slogan around the publication in 1990 of Robert Bly’s Iron John: a Book about Men which advocated that the male’s proper place was in the woods, gnawing the heads off gazelles and felling trees with his bare hands, usually while shirtless (weather permitting). The burgeoning consensus was that men had been emasculated and feminised by the whole New Man revolution; in the process of changing nappies, watching thirtysomething and waxing our chests (often all at the same time), we had lost something vital and visceral in ourselves.
Having become a parent for the first time in the early 1990s, these matters were occasionally on my mind. It’s true that I did spend a lot of my time pushing the pram; sometimes I even remembered to place my baby daughter inside it first. The concept of masculinity in crisis was not one which affected me personally; if I was not hunting or playing rugby or putting up a shelf any more, it was only because I had never done it in the first place, what with my disabling fear of blood, mud and splinters.
But I had witnessed it played out enough times in films to know that my generation could not reasonably lay claim to its inception. If you have seen John Wayne grappling with his own brutishness in The Searchers, or Jack Nicholson snarling and sniping at the women around him in Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, you have seen a phenomenon that predates by many decades Abbott’s slightly bizarre vision of a culture characterised by Viagra and Jack Daniels. Latter-day cinemagoers have not been short of examples, many of them properly connected to the culture of isolation and misdirection that Abbott identifies in her speech as arising from “movements in the labour market”—look at what the absence of work does to the men in Brassed Off or L’emploi du temps.
The new thriller The Liability, starring Tim Roth as a seasoned hit-man taking on a cocky apprentice (Jack O’Connell) for a job in the North of England, provides a neat glimpse of male vulnerability in the context of violence. I should declare an interest—the film’s screenwriter, John Wrathall, is a friend and colleague of mine—but it’s the performances of Roth and O’Connell (and that of Peter Mullan as their imposing boss) that I want to highlight here. Roth has himself been on the other end of this relationship: he was the yapping upstart to an older assassin (played by John Hurt) in Stephen Frears’s road movie The Hit, and there’s a pleasing continuity there. Roth’s character Myron didn’t survive The Hit (few did) but if he had done, it is plausible that he would have grown up to be like Roy, the weary old hand whose irritation at O’Connell’s Adam softens into an intermittently paternal protectiveness.
As the instigator of their gruesome mission, Mullan happens also to be Adam’s mother’s boyfriend, which brings another distorted father/son relationship into the mix. The problem is not merely the fatherlessness that Abbott highlights but the influence of the wrong sorts of fathers. The connective tissue between The Hit and The Liability is helpful here. Myron was already under the influence of a toxic kind of masculinity—the 1980s soccer-yob culture which you can see in the scene in which he smashes up a Spanish bar and everyone in it—but to have John Hurt’s Braddock (as weary there as Roth is in The Liability) as a mentor is never going to keep you on the straight and narrow. Similarly, Adam may have to face his own stepfather in the brutal climax of The Liability, but even if he defeats him, there’s no real prospect of him escaping the cycle of violence given his tutelage by Roy—and by his alliance with another character later in the movie. Think of the eloquent final scene of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York: two violent men lying in the dust. That’s where violence gets us.
So The Hit leads almost 30 years later to The Liability, which leads to… what? Well, perhaps some enterprising writer will put together the next instalment in another three decades, and a canny casting director will have the good sense to hire Jack O’Connell as a grizzled, grown-up version of Adam and we can check back in to see if the cycle has been broken.
The Liability is released 17 May. The Hit screens tonight (16 May) at BFI Southbank, London SE1.