The Toxic Male Rivalry in the National's Mistaken for Strangers

I didn't grow up with a brother, just a younger sister. So it won't come as a surprise that I've always found myself more comfortable around women than men. While I have plenty of close male friends, as a competitive person I've often felt a tension around other men. Conversations always seem to drift toward an endless dick-measuring contest (about status, about money, about whatever) where I fear I might be the loser. So I can't even imagine the hell it would be to have a brother—to know that there's someone out there in the world just like me, except maybe a little more attractive or a little more successful or a little more popular.

That uncomfortable realization dominates Mistaken for Strangers, an engrossing documentary about the indie-rock band the National. I like the group's albums just fine, but familiarity with their music has little bearing on what makes the movie sting. Mistaken for Strangers is one of those rare films that perfectly articulates Cain-and-Abel competitiveness. And like me, you don't need to have a brother for the movie to nail you right between the eyes. In one way or another, Mistaken for Strangers speaks to every man.

Opening Friday in theaters and on-demand, Mistaken for Strangers isn't one of those conventional tour videos made by a band as a fan keepsake that's complete with polished onstage performances of favorite songs. Instead, it features a high-concept hook. National front man Matt Berninger, a handsome, slightly brooding figure, asked his much younger brother Tom, a sweet-natured screw-up who dabbles in art and Z-grade genre moviemaking, to join the National as a roadie while they toured behind their breakthrough 2010 album High Violet. Excited by the invitation, Tom decided to make a movie about the tour, expecting to enjoy the same all-access perks as Matt and the rest of the National. But he quickly discovers that his dreams of living vicariously through his famous brother aren't going to work out: Quite the contrary, Tom feels alienated, struggling with the awareness that, in comparison to Matt's jet-setting life, he's a total failure.

Mistaken for Strangers is the movie Tom made about the experience, and it's full of self-loathing and festering sibling rivalry. (Adding to Tom's humiliation, he got fired during the tour because he couldn't even execute his roadie duties properly.) Some might find the documentary funny a la American Movie, a documentary about a passionate but inept filmmaker trying to get his schlocky dream project off the ground. I couldn't mock Tom, though. I recognize too much of him—and Matt—in me.

There have been plenty of great movies about male rivalries, everything from Amadeus to Crumb, the documentary about cartoonist R. Crumb and his troubled artist brothers. But Mistaken for Strangers is the most heartrending because of how small-scale it is. The Berningers aren't dueling over who's the greatest European composer of the 19th century or battling severe emotional problems like the Crumbs: They're just two brothers from a stable Ohio family who are trying to coexist when one is a famous front man and the other lives with his parents.

And that's what made Matt and Tom so troubling for me: I'm a little bit of both of them. Growing up in the Midwest in a stable family as well, I relate to their career aspirations, even if we didn't go after the same dreams. (Unlike me who pursued writing, Matt and Tom started out as artists—a trip to their parents' house reveals that Matt did minimalist drawings, while Tom pursued more elaborate, multi-panel narratives.) When Matt formed the National at the beginning of the 21st century, the band struggled in anonymity for years to get any recognition, their 2007 album Boxer finally eliciting critical and commercial acclaim. Rock 'n' roll is a far cry from my life as a critic, but I recognize myself in Matt's inspirational up-by-your-bootstraps story: He, too, labored fruitlessly for a long time honing his craft and is now enjoying the career he's always wanted.

But Tom is the guy I'm terrified of becoming: self-deluded, self-pitying, permanently using other people's success as a way to gauge his self-worth. In Tom's case, those failings cause him to look at himself as a watered-down, inferior copy of his older brother. (The two brothers also look similar, which only drives home the gap between their careers, especially when Matt talks like a thoughtful adult and Tom sounds like the metal-loving slacker that he is.) And it causes Tom to react in the worst possible way: He acts out, needling National guitarist Aaron Dessner to reveal negative aspects of Matt's personality or asking drummer Bryan Devendorf why he's the only guy in the group who acts like a true rock star (which the head-banging Tom means as a compliment). His footage rife with insecurity and pettiness, Tom simply can't accept that his brother has been given an entree to the world that he feels has been denied him.

As is the case with a lot of male-rivalry relationships, though, Mistaken for Strangers' real kicker is that we can still see the love between these brothers, despite their strain. Tom speaks affectionately about how Matt as a teenager would let his baby brother hang out with him. And Matt's willingness to be silly for Tom's camera—e.g., striking goofy poses around Europe during downtime from the tour—suggests that there is still some strength to their bond.

This push-pull dynamic happens in most male relationships. Whether it's a real or surrogate brother, men get locked into these battles with people they love, wanting a closeness but also feeling a profound sense of alienation when their perception of themselves doesn't square with their (and others') perception of that other person. Tom and Matt grew up in the same house, were equally adored by their parents and yet one found great acclaim while the other struggled.

Most men have been in both positions—neither is easy. From Tom's perspective, it's embarrassing to be seen as the screw-up who can't get his life together. Matt feels his pain, too, as he tries to encourage his brother's dreams of being a filmmaker and boost his self-esteem. To Matt's annoyance, though, Tom can be clueless, such as when he stubbornly insists on filming during one of the National's VIP backstage events, even though Matt tells him that the celebrity well-wishers want to relax and not worry about cameras being shoved in their faces.

I can't speak for women, but I think men acutely feel that sense of exasperation and anguish when others have what they themselves want. It's the downside of associating ourselves with tribes of likeminded people, either in our professional or personal life. We find these surrogate brothers, and then we waste time measuring ourselves against them. As such, it's only natural that there will be occasions when they get certain things that we want but can't have: that girlfriend or that career opportunity.

We'd all like to think we're individuals—unique and special with our own wonderful qualities—but when we see positive things happen to others that could just have easily happened to us, it makes us wonder what part of our DNA or temperament isn't good enough. This is especially poignant in Mistaken for Strangers when Tom interviews his mom about Matt's success and why it hasn't happened for him. It will, she assures Tom: "What have I always told you? You were my most talented [child]. I've said that from the time that you were a little kid. And I still believe it." Meanwhile, Tom's dad says that the main difference between the brothers is that Matt's more self-confident. Is either parent right? Does anybody know?

Eventually, Tom becomes more cognizant of his self-defeating tendencies. Which allows Mistaken for Strangers to end on a hopeful, albeit somewhat forced, note in which he starts to pull his life together, in part by finishing the documentary and owning up to his immaturity and unprofessional behavior on the road. It's an acknowledgement that a lot of competitive men never make: that sometimes the anger they expend on the other person would be better focused on fixing what's wrong with themselves.

Ironically, the movie's happy ending for Tom illustrates how competitiveness cuts both ways—it's not always the person on the low end of the totem pole who is torn up about a rivalry. Since Mistaken for Strangers has started making the festival rounds, Matt has been asked how he feels about their mom saying that Tom is the more talented one, to which he once responded, "That wasn't the first time I had heard that [from my mom]. I keep telling mom to Google me." More recently, he expanded on that statement, saying, "She's said that about Tom for 20 years, even after our band was starting to do well. So it wasn't the first time that I had heard that. And it was funny, but maybe she's turning out to be right."

Even when we find ourselves as the Matt in a rivalry situation, there's always that quiet feud going on, that jockeying for position. It never ends, which can be depressing to think about: Don't we men ever grow out of that childhood pettiness? But maybe it's comforting as well: Competition is just a natural part of life that encourages us to push ourselves and strive for more. It's a nice thought. One day I hope I'm well-adjusted enough to actually believe it.


Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of "FilmCraft: Screenwriting." Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson

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Photo courtesy of Christian Geisnaes