When Men Run Away From Things: In Praise of ‘Force Majeure,’ ‘Seinfeld,’ and Other All-Too-Rare Depictions of Male Cowardice

As a man who’s also, sometimes, a coward (as men, and generally people, but often men, are), it’s fun to watch other men run away, literally and figuratively, from things onscreen. As a man who also dates men, it’s similarly refreshing — if not fun — to see men running away from things onscreen, because anyone who dates men knows their predilection for running away from things that… aren’t onscreen. Such a viewing experience, however, is not easy to come by.

In film — a playground for men (as the film industry is still, unfortunately, heavily male-dominated) to project their unmet personal ideals onto impossibly heroic characters — men often run toward things in a way that reeks of overcompensation. In romantic comedies, men run towards women; in action movies, they run at their nemeses (or treasure, or women); in political dramas, they run towards the ultimate power (and not quite as often women). Only in character-driven drama, the genre built on assiduous mining of flaws, is it more common to see men recoiling.

And, of course, the act of running toward something is simultaneously one of running away from something else, and this fact is, thankfully, often underscored in hero characters. But sometimes you just want to see pure, unadulterated cowardice, because in life, that’s something you often both see and feel. The Swedish film Force Majeure is one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best depictions not just of male cowardice, but of how such a thing sends a family’s emotional life spiraling. The pivotal moment of cowardice herein is brief — you might not even see exactly what’s happening until it’s tirelessly dissected afterwards — and that’s what’s so fascinating about the film: the aftermath of a man doing something antithetical to notions of manhood, and especially paternal and matrimonial manhood.

Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Östlund, follows a family at an Alipine ski resort. Early in the film, while they’re dining on a restaurant terrace, a controlled avalanche starts creeping down a mountain in the background. As it comes closer, it begins to seem less and less controlled, and tourists’ fascinated gaping turns instantaneously to terror. The wife, Ebba, played by Lisa Loven Kongsli, ducks and covers her children. The husband, Thomas, played by Johannes Kuhnke, grabs his iPhone and gloves and runs. Turns it it’s a false alarm — the avalanche never reached the restaurant. It was just fog.

“Force majeure” is a legal term defined as “unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract”; in the film, it’s a quadruple entendre implying an animal impulse stronger than reason or logic, the force of nature that brings this impulse out, the shattering of the tacit contracts of a marriage, and the shattering of the tacit contracts of manhood within said marriage.

The running question throughout the film is whether that moment of fear — that moment when the diners thought they were facing death — brought out the characters’ authentic selves (the mother as an instinctual nurturer, the father as an instinctual materialist/abandoner). When Thomas is stripped of the luxuries and pleasures — like those usually experienced at a ski resort — that allow people to costume themselves in politeness and care, is he revealing the core of his personhood? Does it reveal that he cares more, firstly for himself, then secondly for his iPhone and his gloves, than he does for his family? Is his id just way shittier than his wife’s? Or was it just a moment of arbitrary, inexplicable action in the face of a crisis, on which too much emphasis has been placed? It’s almost impossible to see it as the latter, both for the viewer and for the family.

Throughout the rest of the film, Thomas has to grapple with this jarring vision of self, while his wife has to grapple with the broken illusion of marriage as an actual bond. The betrayal of that moment exhumes a fact of life that marriage tries to bury: the isolation of both the human body and mind.

Force Majeure has been compared to another film — Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planetby a couple of critics. Planet, which similarly follows a couple into a merciless mountain terrain and exposes the more-merciless terrain of human (animal) instinct, is a film split in half by an almost identical example of instinctual male cowardice, which again leaves both members of the couple feeling mentally isolated, confronting the placement of survivalist animalism in the human psyche. The Georgian mountains become a neutralizing force for the husband’s and wife’s identities, which become meaningless outside of society: both as a couple, and as a man and a woman.

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On television, the most memorable example of a man physically running from harm and trampling all expectations of masculinity and chivalry, was a moment from Seinfeld. You guessed it: George Costanza. In George, Seinfeld was constantly presenting the flimsiness of the male ego with a character who tried to woo women but was forever emasculating himself with his own pettiness and neuroses. The apogee of this behavior occurred in “The Fire,” when, at a child’s birthday party, George fears there’s a fire and tramples children, a clown, and an old women to get out the door, later saying that he was trying to clear the way for everyone. Similarly, one Thomas apologist in Force Majeure says that perhaps he was acting not out of selfishness, but out of the desire to be able to dig people out of the avalanche, which would surely be needed.

While Breaking Bad may not have featured a scene that was exactly similar, the whole show was a slow-burning reproduction of this momentary impulse seen in these other works. Walter White runs from the weak man he sees his cancer turning him into — and the weak man he’d previously been — at the risk of his family’s lives. The scene in the episode Ozymandias where a wailing Skyler runs out into the street after Walter steals their daughter expresses that, finally, she’s gotten to the same place the spouses of the Force and Planet cowards have arrived at: a feeling of being ripped away from all notions of human connection by the dismantling of the performances of marriage and masculinity.

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It’s funny and kind of awesome to see these film and TV characters — themselves pieces of the mediums that perpetuate the pressures of glorified masculinity — buckling under the weight of the images of manhood that TV and film hold up to them. There’s no denying that it exposes a form of utter patheticness in all of these characters, and that these knee-jerk reactions are quite obviously more detrimental than the things the characters are reacting to. When this does happen onscreen, it’s still taken as an anomaly: the characters are surprised, appalled when a man runs away. And we, the audience, are surprised and appalled, and that’s why Force Majeure is so interesting.

In life, men run away all the time. People run away all the time. It is a lonely planet, and it’s funny, then sad, then existentially horrifying when someone runs away onscreen, and we’re reminded of the potential brittleness of other peoples’ care. When a man does it, it can be funnier, sadder, more horrific, because TV and film usually insist on telling us that they don’t.