If you've ever wonder what Jake Gyllenhaal looks like after he's been crying, then Nocturnal Animals is the movie for you. In the new Tom Ford film, Gyllenhaal's character — or one of Gyllenhaal's characters, to avoid getting too specific — spends most of his time onscreen in a state of near-constant anguish. When he isn't actively crying, he looks like he's just finished up: His eyes are rimmed with red and the fibers of his face twitch. This isn't the stoic angst and high-pain threshold of your typical male protagonist. This is full-bore masculine melodrama, and it's surprisingly plentiful during this year's Oscars season.
In what's looking to be an actress-focused awards circuit, Natalie Portman in Jackie and Emma Stone in La La Land are dominating most of the early chatter, with both of them in the kind of bravura role that typically carries an actor to Oscar gold. But on the male side of the equation, instead of the heroes and icons that tend to populate the Best Actor race, the field this year is a lineup of sad, broken men, played with raw empathy and unbridled pathos. Alongside Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals, we have a few renditions of misery: There's Casey Affleck's hollowed-out loner in Manchester by the Sea; Denzel Washington's blustering tyrant in Fences; the trio of young actors playing the repressed Chiron in Moonlight; Shia LaBeouf's lost soul in American Honey; Ben Foster's unhinged ex-con in Hell or High Water; and Dev Patel's searching adoptee in Lion.
As the front runners for Best Actor, Affleck and Washington represent two very different approaches to showing emotion onscreen. In Manchester by the Sea, Affleck's Lee Chandler lives his life in the shadow of an incomprehensible tragedy, before he's forced to step up and care for his nephew in the wake of another loss. Affleck plays Chandler as a broken man, incapable of expressing himself beyond random acts of drunken aggression. It's the kind of performance where the feelings Affleck doesn't show are as poignant and significant as the ones he does. Suffused with grief, confusion, and regret, Chandler doesn't drift through the world; he drifts below it. Accordingly, Kenneth Lonergan's film is a story less about coping, and more about simply continuing to exist. As Affleck told the New Yorker, his character "doesn’t scream and gnash his teeth and pull out his hair. He is just clamped down on himself ... He never lets himself have any sort of catharsis or release in any way."
Washington in Fences couldn't be more different. A former baseball player turned domestic despot, his Troy seems to believe he can talk his way out of aging and irrelevance, masking his underlying pain and insecurity with outward expressions of masculine power. Like Chandler, he struggles to confront the true nature of his emotions, but his coping mechanism couldn't be more different; Washington brings a titanic swagger to the role that's as distinctive as Affleck's disciplined suppression.
Affleck, Washington, Gyllenhaal, and Moonlight's trio of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes all exist in very different movies, but they share a surprising and useful openness to the dynamic of male emotion. (They also share the screen with equally triumphant female performances, including Michelle Williams in Manchester, Viola Davis in Fences, and Amy Adams in Animals.) These actors are working in a style that was last in vogue back in the 1970s, and has since been sidelined for more universal depictions of masculinity. They're exploring grief and naked emotionalism, a baring of the soul that vividly depicts not only a masculine struggle, but a human one.
While performances like these are by no means unheard of in the Best Actor race, they are unusual; that category is often filled by actors playing either real people or more plainly heroic characters, most of whom confront their emotions in one or two clip-worthy scenes but otherwise follow a reliable, well-established arc. In some ways, Affleck, Washington, and the rest are giving the type of performance that tends to win Best Actress, a field that allows for a greater range of psychological color as well as a deeper, riskier embrace of pain. Think of Brie Larson in Room, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, and Natalie Portman in Black Swan — roles that tend to leave no emotional stone unturned. To see honest and challenging portrayals of men in similar states feels, in its own small way, like progress.
Whether these films will resonate with the public is still a question — Moonlight's been a dynamo in limited release, but Manchester and Nocturnal open this weekend, and Fences doesn't come until Christmas. Regardless, they represent a high-water mark for a certain kind of emotionally frank and vibrant filmmaking in recent years, and they're a worthy complement to the wealth of female-centered films this fall, including Certain Women, Jackie, and the wonderful 20th Century Women. It's high time for men to cry.