From black comedy, to crime-horror, and now dark satire, independent filmmaker Jim Cummings has refused to be pigeon-holed. However, uniting his first three features is a thematic interest in masculinity crumbling, issues with commitment, and the trope of men ruining, or running away from relationships out of fear.
In his debut Thunder Road (2018), Cummings plays a police officer who is unpopular with his colleagues, only sees his daughter on weekends, and had a strained relationship with his recently deceased mother. The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2021), sees Cummings resume his role as an authority figure, this time as an alcoholic deputy with anger management issues. Investigating a spate of mysterious killings blamed on the “wolfman”, he struggles to manage his teenage daughter and grieve for his father.
His latest, The Beta Test (2021), transposes law enforcement officers for talent agent Jordan Hines. Weeks before his wedding, he receives a purple envelope offering a sexual rendezvous with an admirer in a luxurious hotel room. After accepting the invite, he becomes intoxicated with the memory of his erotic encounter. Beginning an obsessive search for the person behind the mysterious set-up, his personal and professional life begins to unravel.
Cummings’ films observe masculinity’s fallibility, all three characters humbled by human nature. While Jim Arnaud and Deputy John Marshall appeal to the audience’s sympathy, Hines is a less likeable protagonist. He’s symbolic of toxic capitalist and consumerist America, and his promiscuous nature, successful and rich, he’s more deserving of pity than sympathy.
A broad look at satirical as well as non-satirical films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), enables us to deconstruct how Hines is haunted by cinema’s fragile figures of masculinity.
La Notte (1961)
Hines like Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), the despondent novelist share a wandering eye, and are both are prone to promiscuity. Unlike Hines, however, he’s not so subtle to hide his promiscuous behaviour from his wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau).
Both men are in a state of crisis, and while Hines is yet to be married, are each indicative of a desire to reignite the lust that their long term relationships have sated? Is there something primal about both men, where their sexuality empowers them? Or, do they represent the “death drive”, where despite successful personal and professional lives, there’s an instinctive drive to ruin the lives they’ve built? Regardless, Pontano and Hines are a reflection of masculinity’s self-destructive nature.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
William Harford (Tom Cruise), spurred on by revelations of his wife’s sexual fantasies and her supposed consideration of walking out on him and their daughter, leaves him triggered and angry. Cummings has Jordan Hines cross the line that Kubrick’s protagonist is unwilling to cross, or is it that fate intervenes to prevent him committing adultery, while Hines is fatally tempted by fate?
Comparing these two men forces a reconsideration of Hines’ character. They’re more intimately connected than Hines and Pontano, because out of fear, abandonment or commitment, they seek to escape their monogamous constraints, or sexual prisons.
Cummings, unlike Kubrick is more cynical in The Beta Test’s resolution, echoing Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, or those inescapable cyclical patterns of behaviour. The lingering question is whether Hines will be able to attain Harford’s contentment, or is he an irreparable embodiment of masculinity?
American Psycho (2000)
Cummings distorts the line between what’s real and what’s not in The Beta Test. There are moments in the film where we’re inside Jordan’s head. He perceives his colleague’s wife giving him a flirtatious look over dinner, then there’s the imagined interaction with another woman dining in the restaurant. These moments suggest guilt about those temptations brought on by his fear of commitment, and that he’s sub-consciously balking at the idea of a monogamous lifelong relationship with his fiancée, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb).
This distortion between fantasy and reality echoes Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, a dark satire about privilege and sexual violence.
Cummings can’t match the exaggerated and satirical extremes of American Psycho, but he takes a look into the pressure fuelled world of corporate America, of competing masculine egos, and the tussle for control and power.
If we’re left to question whether Bateman’s experiences were fantasy or real, there’s a dreamlike aesthetic to The Beta Test, in which Hines’ hell could be an absurd dream. Regardless, both Bateman and Hines are men considered successful and in control, but it’s a façade, beneath which lies an image of frail and insecure men.
Blue Valentine (2010)
The Beta Test is partly driven by the suspense of whether Hines’ gradual meltdown will culminate in the end of his engagement. At an initial glance, Hines is a far cry from Dean (Ryan Gosling) in Blue Valentine, who works for a moving company and then paints houses. Both have their masculinity challenged in different ways. Hines’ attempts to sign a new client are met with resistance, when he discovers he can’t win them over with words, and the power dynamic is obviously not in his favour. Meanwhile, Dean’s masculinity as provider and a dependable partner to mate with is challenged.
We also observe the strength of women opposite these two men in free-fall, that fractures masculine pride and dominance. It’s the proverbial final nail in the coffin to symbolise the image of masculinity crumbling.
Tapping into a tradition of masculinity critiqued or savagely questioned, Cummings reveals that cinema and its storytellers have long been aware of the false façade of masculine strength. Jordan Hines is a uniquely Jim Cummings creation, but his depiction of masculine frailty is an extension of what has gone before. He’s a ghost, an amalgamation of these many figures of troubled, even pitiful masculinity.