Once upon a time movie men were expected to be all action confidence, whether in the form of a swagger or saunter, being the mark of the leading man. Such virility was served up uncooked by method actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, but it wasn't until the baby boom generation ushered in unlikely stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson that the archetype really turned over. Realism was the new fantasy, and these actors went to great lengths to convey hurt. This tendency reached a peak during the indie cinema boom of the '90s, with male leads wearing their wounds with newfound openness, flailing or as writer-director Noah Baumbach would have it, kicking and screaming at posteverything angst and political correctness. Several of this year's most indelible male characters were racked with similar inaction but were also fleshed out with an altogether tougher skin than were their '90s predecessors. They still struggled to come to terms with the present tense but in a more reserved, reflective kind of way.
Even with the Zach Braff vehicle The Last Kiss failing to stir Garden State fans, 2006 was a good year for boy-men. The fact that Keanu Reeves (A Scanner Darkly) continues to win parts is surely proof enough, but there were three American indies Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson, Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation, and Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy that most poignantly located ambiguity (and cultural malaise) in the troubled expressions of their male leads. Is it telling that women had a major hand in making two of these films, with director Reichardt adapting Jon Raymond's story for Old Joy and Anna Boden teaming with director Fleck to pen the script for Half Nelson? Probably so, especially when you consider that it's the male-helmed Mutual Appreciation (written, directed, and costarring Bujalski) that most resembles the talky Generation X pictures made 10 years ago, albeit realized with a formal tact and thematic subtlety largely missing in those now-dated chronicles of ennui.
The fact that each of these films frames its character studies in a different way Half Nelson is a social drama, Mutual Appreciation a relationship movie, and Old Joy the closest thing to lyric poetry we're likely to get from American narrative cinema makes their overlaps all the more striking. All the central characters are, to be sure, of the same milieu (Half Nelson and Mutual Appreciation even share a Brooklyn setting), and one imagines they would get along fine at the right party a conclusion we can draw from their record collections. It's clear enough from Half Nelson's Broken Social Scene soundtrack and Old Joy's Yo La Tengo score but even more embedded in the casting of Will Oldham in Old Joy and as-yet-unknown rocker Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation: a nod to '70s cinema, when art directors like Monte Hellman found muses in musician-actors like Kris Kristofferson, Warren Oates, and yup, James Taylor.
These singer-songwriters are known for suggesting emotion without resorting to histrionic literalism, so it's natural that filmmakers aiming for opaque characterizations took an interest in them. If casting provides clay to mold (even Half Nelson's Ryan Gosling an established actor is enough of a blank slate for these purposes), it's the filmmakers who supply the films' crucial senses of diffusion and displacement. All these films are, at base, about characters fundamentally unsure of their place in the world, so it makes sense that they share a common focus on environment and mise-en-scène.