The Husband Bruce McDonald
Published Sep 28, 2013Though arguably one of his most accessible feature films, taking a dry and straightforward approach to black comedy with minimal stylization, Bruce McDonald's The Husband reiterates his common exploration of affable losers with a propensity for winding up in shitty situations. Similarly, peripheral themes of delusional romance and, more significantly, the misguided, woefully pathetic presentation of male machismo, gives this story of a man revelling in the aftermath of a scandal—wherein his teacher wife slept with a 14-year-old male student—a distinct underlying McDonald edge.
This man, Henry Andreas (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), an emaciated advertising copywriter paying his wife's legal bills and trying to raise their infant son while she serves time, is the very embodiment of metaphoric impotence. The affair between Alyssa (Sarah Allen) and her student Colin (Dylan Authors) was widely publicized, leaving everyone in Henry's life—and even strangers—perceiving him as little more than the husband of the woman that slept with her student.
The unspoken social double-standard, one that solidifies this work as an informal treatise on the flimsy, highly proprietary, modes in which the male identity is defined, is that people pity Henry. If he'd slept with a teenage girl and gone to jail, his wife would be perceived as the ultimate victim, receiving implicit empathy and compassion from the world around her. Contrarily, Henry is emasculated by the act, perceived, mostly by himself, as such an inferior, insubstantial man that even a 14-year-old boy proves preferable in a sexual and culturally defining capacity.
As Henry reluctantly, almost petulantly, visits Alyssa in prison and lashes out at his co-workers for being shallow corporate ciphers, it becomes clear that his rage, despite being internalized, stems from the idea that this kid might be more of a man than him.
In an effort to understand why his wife had the affair, Henry creeps Colin on Facebook, showing up at museum school trips and buying him video game consoles in an effort to have a conversation. Of course, since the kid is terrified of him and the situation, these scenarios tend to vacillate between discomforting creepiness and pitch black comedy, having frailty and a painful desperation that speaks to the futility of trying to comprehend or validate a fractured identity.
McDonald's refusal to make a caricature of or comically objectify Henry—something that's similarly aided by McCabe-Lokos' frazzled, distressingly realist depiction of a man perpetually fleeing from his own rage—is what makes The Husband more challenging than its seemingly carefree demeanour would otherwise allow. The askew awkwardness of troublesome situations, such as Henry being caught by friends or questioned by a police officer while sitting outside of Colin's school in his car, suggests that the array of bad decisions made by this loser are intended to be funny. McDonald also utilizes rapidly cut close-ups to transition segments through mundane tasks (dressing, cooking, etc.), reiterating an aesthetic used in mainstream comedy texts.
What's troublesome is that this style—a style of mainstream appeal—is supporting a story that refuses to minimize the severity of Henry's foolish life decisions and compounding self-loathing. His rage and despondence, though messy and embarrassing, isn't played for comedy, just as his actions—stalking Colin and feeding beer and cigarettes to his underage babysitter in a touchy bid to even the playing field with Alyssa—genuinely feel like they will have very real consequences.
While this sort of material could easily devolve into the Peter Pan fantasy ideation pap reiterated ad nauseum by the Freaks & Geeks crowd, McDonald refuses to allow it, which gives The Husband some ironic dignity, but also makes it confounding as a superficial text. That it's unclear whether we're supposed to identify with Henry, laugh at him or question the limits to our own compassion—and resultantly our perceptions of gender bias—is never entirely clear, which is simultaneously a blessing and curse for a film that feels faintly inconsistent and emotionally sloppy. (Scythia Films)