Woodrow stares at the box of “Milly’s Shit,” a recurring image signaling Bellflower’s nonlinear structure.
Woodrow’s notebook sketches of the Mother Medusa gang logo (motto: “Loyalty or Death”) and their cinematic role model, Lord Humungus.
The tyrannical Lord Humungus gives the settlers an ultimatum in The Road Warrior (1981). Image sourced from aged VHS transfer, à la Woodrow and Aiden’s nostalgic object of fandom.
Shotgun blast meets propane tank: the first of many spectacular fireballs in Bellflower.
Homosocial/homoerotic male bonding in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Fight Club (1999). As Fight Club’s Tyler Durden says, “I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”
Open confessions of mutual bromantic love and a heartfelt embrace after a long adolescent adventure in Superbad (2007).
Jules et Jim (1962): one of cinema’s most famous homoerotically charged love triangles. Also, love interest Catherine sports an early incarnation of the ironic hipster mustache.
Aiden offers Woodrow the opportunity to fire the completed flamethrower first.
Ironic sunglasses, unironic affection: Aiden gazes at Woodrow as they banter about romance.
Aiden finishes the Medusa flamethrower alone while Woodrow and Milly are together in Texas.
Just before the apocalypse: Woodrow smothers Milly with attention and confesses that he loves her.
Woodrow plays with Courtney’s handgun after they sleep together.
Courtney angrily leaves Woodrow’s house after he unconvincingly says he loves her. Opening the door to find Aiden just arriving, one of Woodrow’s loves is swapped for another.
Milly and Mike find the flamethrower’s handiwork littered across their front lawn.
Courtney cuts the hair that Milly had wanted Woodrow to grow out, symbolizing the romantic transition.
Newly tattooed Woodrow confronts Milly in her kitchen, then falls to his knees in the street after attacking her.
Back to Woodrow staring the box, as at the film’s beginning, connoting the end of a long, unmarked fantasy sequence.
Woodrow and Aiden lovingly embrace on a park bench, while the Medusa car idles nearby, as if ready to whisk them off to their post-apocalyptic fantasy.
Woodrow fantasizes about his “new life as Lord Humungus,” with Aiden by his side. This masculinist fantasy stands in stark contrast with his “real” act of burning the box alone.
The titular Step Brothers (2008) rekindle their bromantic friendship in the process of reuniting their estranged parents and moving toward adult financial success.
Aiden and Woodrow each imagine the Medusa car as key to the escapist fantasies reinforcing their longtime bond.
No longer serving a narrative function, Courtney shoots herself behind Woodrow. Meanwhile, a battered Milly reunites with Woodrow in one of his fantasy’s most misogynistic moments.
Aggressive post-apocalyptic dudedom vs. masculinity’s endemic shortcomings: a study in contrasts?
Bellflower opens with a brief, disjointed montage of chaotic footage, all unspooling in reverse to foreshadow the coming emotional disintegration. It concludes with our main protagonist, Woodrow (Glodell), sitting in his living room starring at a cardboard box labeled “Milly’s Shit.” Cut to the epigraph “Lord Humongous [sic] cannot be defied,” attributed to The Road Warrior's main villain, Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). As we will see, this hulking, leather-clad gang leader with a homosexual love slave serves as a fantasy role model for Bellflower’s dyad of hip, young male friends. Like Glodell himself, Woodrow and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) grew up in Wisconsin, endlessly re-watching a VHS recording of George Miller’s cult action film, before moving out to California together. They are now twenty-something male hobbyists living on the skids in Los Angeles, with no apparent jobs or source of income, but seemingly equipped with enough cash for their masculine hobbies and plenty of cheap alcohol.
Aiden subsequently sets the thematic tone for much of what follows by telling Woodrow his fantasy of the two friends prepared to take control over their environs with a muscle car and flamethrower in the aftermath of an unspecified apocalypse. This fantasized road trip lurks in the background throughout the film. Its failure to reach fruition echoes the indefinitely extended adolescence evoked whenever the two friends are together. Hanging out together in a secluded outdoor area near a ruined building, for example, Woodrow scribbles designs for their post-apocalyptic “Mother Medusa” gang in his notebook. When he complains that he doesn’t think women even like him anymore, Aiden half-jokingly replies, “Do you know what I was thinking earlier when I was looking into your eyes, when you were holding that big gun by me? Dude, you harsh reminded me of Lord Humungus. And I was the Birdman,” an allusion to the feather-bedecked Wez (Vernon Wells), Humungus’s homosexual love slave and co-villain in The Road Warrior. “Okay, listen,” Aiden continues, “We’re going out tonight, and if I even catch you looking at someone—I don’t care if it’s a fucking guy—you are going to hit on them. You are going to pick them up. You are going to take them home. And I’m going to be right there by your side the whole time…until the finishing act.” Readying the real reason for their afternoon idyll, Woodrow fires a sawed-off shotgun at a distant propane tank that explodes in a massive fireball. Surveying the results, they decide that diesel will be a better fuel for their unnamed project. Both men laughingly agree that “propane is for pussies.”
This opening scene contains many of the film’s core tensions, abruptly shifting from homosocial banter to dangerous weaponry, accompanied by blatantly gendered valuations of some technologies over others. Aiden’s fantasized comparisons to The Road Warrior’s villainous homosexual couple also suggest that the close emotional relationship between himself and Woodrow occupies that ambivalent space between homosociality and homosexuality among male friends called the “bromance.”[open endnotes in new window] Of course, intimate male bonding has a long tradition in American literature and cinema, as seen in works including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), The Great Gatsby (1925), Hud (1963), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and Fight Club. Although these relationships are often explicitly tempered by heterosexual desires, they also implicitly contain the seeds of potential homoerotic affection between men. We can think, for example, of the intimate Jack Kerouac/Neal Cassady “bromance” in On the Road (1957) as a literary predecessor of the Woodrow/Aiden dyad, particularly in their hip sensibilities and the road trip’s potential for fostering inter-male relationships. The contemporary cinematic bromance, however, has typically been associated with comedies about men in various states of arrested development on the path to normative adulthood (e.g., the films of producer/director Judd Apatow). Nevertheless, I find it a useful term of comparison for discussing the far darker twists that Bellflower takes as its story of (b)romantic competition unfolds.
The contemporary bromance, for example, allows men to openly exhibit more “sensitive” emotionality with each other (e.g., openly weeping, admitting personal weaknesses) than permitted in traditionally stolid displays of homosocial masculinity. Whereas a man’s less traditional performances of masculinity are typically reserved for situations with a heterosexual partner and downplayed when around other men, the bromance plot allows more flexibility in this regard. The comedic context of most cinematic bromances (e.g., Superbad , Pineapple Express , Step Brothers , I Love You, Man , 50/50 ) allows the male viewer to distance himself from fully identifying with these figures of “compromised” masculinity. Still, bromances ultimately tend to uphold the unconventionally masculine man’s eventual entry into a stable heterosexual union and other normative rewards of conventional masculinity (e.g., higher social status or earning power). As a serious drama, however, Bellflower appeals to different generic expectations. It thereby allows its male protagonists to fall short of these rewards, even if the men still display openly emotional responses to their relationships with each other and the opposite sex. By foregoing such rewards, Bellflower may open more space for male viewers to critically reflect upon their ideological investment in these characters. Yet, as I will elaborate later, the film’s reception still shows quite variable responses in this regard.
In her pioneering study Between Men, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that narratives focusing extensively on inter-male bonding or competition may displace latent homoerotic intimacy into socially accepted forms of homosocial or heterosexual activity. For example, love triangles featuring two men fighting over the same woman often feature men paying far more attention to each other’s inner psychologies than the heterosexual love object who serves as a relay for their displaced same-sex desire. Indeed, Aiden’s aforementioned comparison of himself as the subservient Wez to Woodrow’s Lord Humungus suggests that Aiden’s eagerness to let Woodrow be the first to test their homemade flamethrowers and cars effectively figures these contraptions as gifts of affection. Rather than a romantic rivalry over the same woman becoming the primary relay of homoerotic desire, these handcrafted, traditionally “masculine” technologies serve as the prime intermediaries of their desire for each other. Perhaps fearing he will lose his longtime friend (and latent love interest), Aiden’s enabling presence perpetually keeps Woodrow trapped in an emotional stage marked by adolescent homosocial bonding instead of adult heterosexual union. This retardation of Woodrow’s personal development echoes the stasis preventing their fantasized road trip as the Medusa gang from ever achieving fruition. Furthermore, it also echoes the two men’s underlying longings for their adolescent or pre-adolescent past together.
Consequently, I would argue that their relative feelings of distance from or closeness to homosocial/homoerotic desire is linked to a related ambivalence between ironic distance from and sincere longing for their objects of personal nostalgia. With its “comic book aesthetic,” for instance, The Road Warrior might seem primed for ironic celebration as a cheesy, mockable piece of 1980s cinematic extravagance, but it clearly remains a deeply heartfelt part of their shared pasts as well. Furthermore, this ambivalence is partly a product of occupying an indie/hipster habitus in which irony suffuses the communication patterns of its predominantly young, white, bohemian denizens. Woodrow and Aiden’s chuckling banter about the Medusa gang suggests that they recognize the ridiculousness of their masculinist fantasy about male technological superiority in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Beneath their defensively ironic affectation of insincere appreciation, however, is a post-ironic love for a film that their hip peers might otherwise criticize as “juvenile” or politically suspect. The masculinism of their Road Warrior-inspired reverie also helps deflect the homoerotic implications of their more sincere investments in a fantasy scenario that has sustained their close bond for years. As Jeffrey Sconce notes in his review of the film, “There is a sense that their love of the franchise’s universe has moved from a childhood fascination to teenage irony and then back again to an oddly invested earnestness.” This dynamic also tellingly describes the men’s intimate relationship with each other, but not necessarily their relationships with women.
During a night out at a local dive bar, Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a young woman who has volunteered for a competition to eat the most live crickets. Answering the host’s tongue-in-cheek call to find “anyone [who has] what it takes to beat this little girl,” Woodrow jokingly calls Milly a “daddy’s girl.” But his mock swagger ends when she promptly defeats him by gleefully stuffing her maw with insects, effectively proving herself “one of the boys.” Her unexpectedly competitive performance undercuts Woodrow’s own ironic performance of a traditionally macho gender role that sharply contrasts with his friendly, laid-back appearance. (We later hear that she was lit on fire during the previous week’s bar competition.) She agrees to go on a date with Woodrow after he admits to building a flamethrower in his spare time. The hip novelty of this strange hobby intrigues Milly. In return, her forcefully vivacious attitude seems to energize Woodrow in a way that he only otherwise experiences with Aiden.
Rather than go to dinner at “a nice place” on their first date, for example, Milly insists that Woodrow take her to the “cheapest, nastiest, scariest place that you know of.” It turns out to be a dilapidated roadside diner that he and Aiden had been too scared to enter during a past road trip but had agreed to one day visit together. Although this diner happens to be located halfway across the country in Texas, Milly and Woodrow embark on the impromptu journey in his heavily customized car, “Speed Biscuit.” Along the way, he describes the fantasy of the Mother Medusa gang, and she declares her intentions to eventually become an “honorary member,” potentially impinging on the men’s homosocial fantasy world.
Sure enough, the road trip delays Aiden’s plan to test their newly completed flamethrower (the “Medusa Model 1”) until Woodrow arrives home from Texas. Along the way, he has traded Speed Biscuit for an old motorcycle that reminds him of The Road Warrior. Despite all the time and labor that he and Aiden spent customizing the car together, Woodrow declares that Speed Biscuit is “not worth anything” compared to the motorcycle that Milly has suddenly brought to his attention. In this sense, Milly’s excited participation in the post-apocalyptic fantasy begins to outweigh the value and cachet of Woodrow’s customized creations. The homosocial intimacy of the men’s fannish fantasy once found material expression in the “boys’ zone” of custom-built cars and weaponry. It is now sublimated into a heterosexual relationship with a woman who has proved herself worthy of being treated as “one of the boys.”
The emotional and tactile materiality of this sexual relationship thus stands in for the alternate form of materiality once afforded by the men’s hands-on hobbies. Hence, Aiden grows increasingly jealous and frustrated over the amount of time that Woodrow devotes to Milly than to their upcoming plan of building a Mother Medusa car. This is not to say, of course, that Milly’s presence utterly mitigates their male homosocial/homoerotic desire. When Woodrow and Milly have sex for the first time, for example, they do not realize that Aiden is also in the same room, all three sleeping off a particularly drunken night. After Woodrow ejaculates prematurely, Aiden jokes, “It would probably help if my fingers were in your butt.” “Wow, you guys are really close,” Milly replies, “We can switch spots if you want.” Echoing the homoeroticism in his earlier promise, Aiden has indeed been “right there by [Woodrow’s] side the whole time…until the finishing act.”
Feeling smothered by Woodrow’s increasing attention, Milly subsequently cheats on him with her roommate Mike (Vincent Grashaw). Upon discovering them having sex, Woodrow drives away on the motorcycle and is promptly struck by a car. He lands in the hospital with severe head trauma and possible brain damage. From this point onward, the film’s narrative becomes increasingly non-linear, with abrupt flashbacks suggesting that Woodrow is indeed mentally damaged on some level.
Woodrow’s personal and fantasized apocalypse thus increasingly converge in the wake of Milly’s assertion of her sexual independence. This is further suggested when Aiden takes him home from the hospital in a newly acquired hot-rod that will soon be customized into the Mother Medusa car. Although Milly had warned him during their Texas road trip that she would eventually hurt him, her betrayal becomes the film’s definitive turning point. Woodrow’s return to Aiden coincides with the former’s new sexual dalliance with Milly’s best friend Courtney (Rebekah Brandes). Courtney sympathizes with Woodrow over the romantic betrayal and, on a narrative level, deflects the potential homoeroticism of the male reunion. Despite Aiden’s budding feelings for Courtney, he ultimately endorses Woodrow’s sexual conquest as a valuable part of his friend’s recovery. Like the weapons and cars, then, Aiden’s willing relinquishment of Courtney to Woodrow relegates her to just another relay for the men’s latent homoerotic desire. After all, Aiden seems unconcerned whether their temporary dalliance will bloom into a relationship that threatens his own desire for Woodrow. I would suggest that this speaks to Courtney’s overall portrayal as more passive and less overtly “hip” than either Milly or Aiden. As such, she would seemingly pose little significant competition for Woodrow’s affection.
The ability to perform coolness with little effort allowed Milly to more easily become “one of the boys” within their milieu, although the film’s depiction of her sexuality repeatedly inscribes her as a “naturally” female object of desire. That is, she might be able to rival the boys in gamesmanship like the cricket-eating contest or joining the Medusa gang, but her highly visible role in multiple heterosexual sex scenes biologically reiterates her femaleness. Aside from the latent homoerotic tension between Woodrow and Aiden, Milly’s sexual choices provide the film’s narrative crux. In contrast, Courtney is part of the same milieu but does not seem concerned with becoming one of the boys. Milly’s resistance to monogamy challenges the traditionally male prerogative of monogamy as a source of sexual control over women. Courtney, however, very quickly moves from consoling to sleeping with Woodrow, forsaking her friendship with Milly and thereby fueling the post-breakup animosity between Milly and Woodrow. She is consequently portrayed as more stereotypically “feminine” than Milly (e.g., emotionally needy, a passive recipient of male affection, etc.), and, as we soon see, even fatally invested in a monogamous relationship that Woodrow won’t reciprocate.
The bromance quickly grows more nightmarish when Woodrow finally decides to use the flamethrower to burn the box of “Milly’s Shit” in her front yard. Soon afterward, Mike vandalizes the Medusa car in retribution, so Aiden strikes him with a baseball bat and flees. With Aiden now gone, Woodrow decides there is nothing left for him in Los Angeles, including Courtney, and resolves to leave. Before he can leave, however, Mike and Milly forcibly capture him and tattoo a huge mustache on his face. It will serve as a permanent reminder of the facial hair that Woodrow never liked, but had nevertheless grown at Milly’s insistence during their relationship.
Later bursting into Milly’s house, Woodrow furiously threatens to do some “really fucking sick shit” to her in retribution, but she cries that she just wanted to see him. They have rough sex on the kitchen floor until he violently assaults her (off-screen) and emerges from her house covered with blood. A distraught Courtney shoots herself in the street after he brushes her aside. Suddenly, we cut back to Woodrow sitting in his living room staring at the box of Milly’s Shit. The preceding, increasingly outlandish scenes of chaos may have been Woodrow’s misogynistic revenge fantasy of what could happen if he torches the box. Although the film’s non-linear structure lends some narrative ambiguity, the fact that we have already fleetingly glimpsed these scenes in the film’s first moments, before the main action commences, accentuates their status as an extended flight of imagination.
The film concludes with Aiden and Woodrow taking the completed Medusa car for a nocturnal test-drive, and the men finally rest together on a seaside bench. In this evocatively “bromantic” scene, Woodrow weepingly apologizes for the recent strain on their friendship, while Aiden suggests they leave California together (“I mean, you’re the only reason I’m here”) and make a fresh start elsewhere. As at the film’s start, Aiden narrates the Mother Medusa gang fantasy while they imagine a mushroom cloud rising as their car speeds down barren back roads. “Dude, you are Lord fucking Humungus!” Aiden exclaims, continuing,
Of course, Aiden ignores or disavows the fact that women are not actually Lord Humungus’ sexual preference in The Road Warrior. Still, he soothingly tells Woodrow, “It’s okay that it hurts. You’re not the only one who fucked up. You’re getting ready to start your new life as Lord Humungus.” These images of an imagined future conclude with the two men trotting together into the desert, equipped with shotguns and flamethrowers. These escapist fantasies are finally juxtaposed with the real-life image of a solitary Woodrow quietly burning the box of Milly’s Shit on the beach as he remembers happier moments from his doomed romance. Fleeing into fannish dreams of post-apocalyptic frontier masculinity ultimately proves a more seductive course for Woodrow and Aiden than facing the scorched earth in their real lives. Consequently, their bromance constantly regresses into reveries that seem all the more pathetic because so intractable.
Unlike Bellflower, many bromance comedies start at the beginning of dyadic male friendships. The homoerotic potential of the ensuing mutual curiosity tends to be partially assuaged by the men’s preexisting heterosexual relationships. Furthermore, the heterosexual couple formation that resolves these narratives is not accompanied by a loss of the male friendship. The bromance is thereby indefinitely extended beneath the “safe” auspices of heterosexual union. I Love You, Man, for example, opens with two men (Paul Rudd and Jason Segel) becoming unlikely friends. It concludes with a heterosexual wedding at which the real emotional payoff is the reunion of said friends, previously driven apart by the future wife. Likewise, Step Brothers begins with two perpetually adolescent man-children (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) becoming stepbrothers when their parents marry. It ends with their later-divorced parents reuniting once the brothers prove they can reconcile their childish ways with “grown-up” entrepreneurial aspirations.
In Bellflower, however, the dramatic narrative begins and ends with the isolated male dyad. The fact that Woodrow and Aiden are under no social obligation to change their preexisting relationship with each other thus seems a far more gloomy implication than raised by the bromance comedy. Aiden says that if they leave Los Angeles, it will seem “like nothing’s even changed” between them. Woodrow, however, is far more pessimistic that “nothing ever changes.” One friend sees a change of scene as bolstering the hyperbolically masculinist vision they will take wherever they go together, while the other seems dismally resigned to these very implications. Although Bellflower contains elements of the road movie, the road movie’s central homosocial journey largely exists unfulfilled in their own heads. Their Medusa projects represent attempts to bring cinematic elements into their real lives in preparation for the coming road trip. Yet, these material talismans also signal just how far they are from realizing their fantasized post-apocalyptic dystopia. The film thus seems more primed to critique than to endorse the adolescent masculinism behind its protagonists’ stunted emotional/political development.
However, this critique is undercut by the text’s own resonances with several of the films looming in the memories of Bellflower’s viewers. Benjamin Mercer, for example, argues that Bellflower’s affectionate pastiching of other “turn-of-the-21st-century masculine-identity-crisis features,” such as Fight Club, negates its ability to effectively critique its own portrait of contemporary masculinity run amok. In the film’s reception, unappreciative critics accused Bellflower of giving “a tacit approval” to misogyny “without taking its characters to task for their real or imagined misdeeds.” For these critics, the amount of screen time devoted to Woodrow and Aiden’s violent fantasies of male camaraderie and female submission outweighed the film’s implied critique of adolescent male psychology. As another reviewer remarks, “After a point, Bellflower becomes a film about men who hate women, and it comes awfully close to endorsing their point of view.” Far more problematically, some fans of the film concur that it confirms their own deeply masculinist beliefs. This type of fan response is exemplified by a top-rated YouTube comment posted under the film’s trailer:
Much like fan responses to Fight Club, appreciative fans have generally said little about Bellflower’s homoerotic male subtext. This subtext is instead disavowed under the auspices of celebrating either platonic friendship or violent masculinity.
Several elements of characterization lead me to believe that Glodell intentionally depicts Woodrow and Aiden as latent misogynists, although I am not so quick to dismiss the text itself as wholly endorsing such attitudes. In his final speech about Lord Humungus sexually dominating women, for example, Aiden most openly gives voice to the men’s unveiled misogynistic attitudes. Additionally, the film does suggest that Woodrow’s imagined transformation from nice guy to violent avenger is a direct consequence of Milly’s sexual indiscretions. Her warning to Woodrow that she will eventually hurt him only proves too true. Likewise, he fantasizes about a bloodied Milly remorsefully reuniting with him just after he has brutalized her, implying that his imagined violence was justified. Meanwhile, Courtney largely exists as a catalyst for the simmering tension after Woodrow and Milly’s breakup. She hysterically kills herself off when she no longer plays a role in Woodrow’s fantasy of manly retribution.
However, the alternation in the film’s final moments between the startling misogyny underlying the Mother Medusa fantasy and the somberness of Woodrow’s real-world coda to his failed romance (uneventfully burning the box on the beach) leads me to tentatively push back against critical assessments that the film definitely endorses misogyny on a textual level. Critics and fans may see Woodrow’s fannish commingling of fantasy and reality throughout the narrative as implicitly endorsing a misogynistic worldview. Alternately, I find the final disparity between Woodrow’s idealized, hypermasculine fantasy and his quiet, dismal reality to be a poignant reminder of hegemonic masculinity’s own phantasmatic status. That is, hegemonic masculinity may be a historically contingent concept, but it can certainly have detrimental real-world effects when romanticized as part of men’s identities (as seen in the fan response cited above). Yet, it also remains a constructed ideal that men inevitably and often painfully fail to achieve. No amount of personal striving can achieve this elusive ideal, since the potential to become more “masculine” in one’s look or disposition can always be imagined. All men therefore fall short of this imaginary ideal, albeit in different ways or proportions.
This shortcoming fuels the comedy of most cinematic bromances, and the intended pathos of Bellflower’s ending. Yet, I would suggest that the latter film’s underlying masculinist ethos is more clearly reinforced in its promotional strategies than within the ambiguous narrative itself. As I will discuss below, Woodrow and Aiden’s failure to achieve their fantasies of hegemonic masculinity is contradicted by the filmmakers’ own efforts to build indie cachet rooted in such fantasies.