2015 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: The Toxic Masculinity of Michael Cimino’s ‘Year of the Dragon’


Year of the Dragon, Michael Cimino’s macho trainwreck vision of excess, is built on the shoulders of his own damaged ego. Cimino goes out of his way to show contempt for anyone “different,” idolizing the cowboy wildness of Stanley White (Mickey Rourke at his most handsome and most unhinged), while throwing just about everyone else under the bus. Year of the Dragon might be the most offensive popular release in the past 50 years, yet for being so full of hatred and contempt, it remains deliriously watchable.

Stanley is a maverick detective put on the Chinatown beat. Racist and reckless, he doesn’t play by the rules. The character embodies a breed of stereotypes that was already long outdated by the film’s 1985 release, but somehow Rourke pulls it all together. As Stanley investigates the murder of some high ranked members of the Chinese mafia, he becomes intertwined in a sexual affair with a Chinese-American newscaster and proves himself to be one of the few “straight cops” in the force — in spite of his complete disregard for the basic tenets of justice or basic human decency. His pursuit for the right thing doesn’t have roots in any moral imperative, it’s rooted in an obsessive desire to affirm his masculinity and supremacy. Stanley’s determination is animalistic and self-serving, he is the reason why people fear law enforcement officers.


Both Stanley and Cimino lack any real understanding of women, which inspires some uncomfortable and unintentionally hilarious moments in the film. Beyond Stanley’s brutishness, Cimino’s perception of feminine desire comes out of left field. There are few moments in the history of cinema so awkward as Tracy screaming “I love you” (in ecstasy) as she rides Stanley, who just a few scenes earlier raped her. Completely lacking in sincerity, the moment feeds into Cimino’s ill-intended perception that women want to be dominated, and the more power hungry the woman, the more brutal the man she needs. Such a belief every woman wants to be dominated and controlled (under the surface of confidence) is so brutally nihilistic that it becomes difficult to even address seriously. Cimino’s treatment of Tracy reaches levels of such absurd heights of incredulity that it becomes difficult to even take it at face value. Is this male wish fulfillment or a painful vision of a man twisted by his own hubris and hatred?


(Image: Indiewire/Thompson on Hollywood)

On the other hand, the world itself, with its lush textual integrity and rich color palette, somehow feels like a hysterical fit — a violent side of unbridled femininity at it’s most emotional and aesthetic. In feeling, Year of the Dragon can be connected to movies like Possession (1981) and Carrie (1976), as opposed to the macho club of New Hollywood Cinema. It’s a film that rides on the hysterical backs of its lead and Cimino’s vision, existing in a parallel universe shaped by the damaged psychology of its violent central character. The atmosphere of Year of the Dragon is so dominated by feelings that any sense of order or structure loses its integrity. Justice, marriage and society all crumble under the weight of Stanley’s corrupted and self-serving worldview. Inspired by neither materialism or morality, Stanley’s individualism reflects his compulsion to do what he wants (when he wants it) subsequently erodes the American Dream. As horrifying as Cimino’s treatment of women and minorities are in Year of the Dragon, it stands out as somehow representative of a real toxicity that is increasingly difficult to turn away from. Dangerous isolationism stands at the heart of the film, as Cimino — intentionally or not — paints a portrait of a self-serving white man who takes rather than gives. Nothing else matters but himself, and he will set the world on fire before giving up an inch of that freedom.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.