Pop culture is rife with dick jokes, and we’re so accustomed to processing them as indications of macho male insecurity that we often neglect other resonances. The penis obviously isn’t just a symbol of a male’s ability to satisfy another person sexually; it’s an instrument of mammalian creation, and so it’s linked, even if only subconsciously, with legacy and mortality. It’s this crucial understanding that allows Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s The Final Member to sneak up on you—how a potential barroom joke blossoms into a surprisingly poignant portrait of three aging men wrestling with how to shed their mortal coil.
Siggi Hjartarson is the proprietor of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is said to be the world’s only museum that displays solely male genitalia of an impressively vast sampling of species. The biggest is a sperm whale’s penis, which is nearly the length and girth of an average-sized human being. The smallest penis comes from a hamster, and resembles a BB made of bone. In the museum are the preserved penises of polar bears, goats, seals, walruses; some are housed in jars of formaldehyde, while others are mounted on the walls like hunting trophies. But Hjartarson is missing one major specimen: a human member.
The filmmakers aren’t blind to the humor of a situation that finds a group of aging men engaging in a highly unusual and intellectualized big-dick contest, but they don’t make a juvenile joke of it, and the introductions of the potential donors serve to up the emotional ante considerably. Pall Arason, a renowned explorer as well as a cocksman of considerable repute, offers to donate his penis to the museum upon his death and, considering that he’s 95, that promise shouldn’t be long unfulfilled. But Tom Mitchell, an American horse farmer, is willing to part with his exceptionally large instrument while he’s still alive, and the second half of the film is chiefly driven by the mystery behind a middle-aged man’s desire to part with a healthy member so prematurely.
Mitchell arises as The Final Member’s broken heart, and his wayward loneliness, accentuated by a prickly over-sensitivity, complements the other men’s encroaching fears of death. Bekhor and Math shoot the film primarily in close-ups, which is understandable given the subjects’ poetically worn faces, and they gently coax out a larger humanist meaning: Many make trivializing sport or stigma of an instrument of life and pleasure, but these men refuse to take such matters for granted. It’s an illustration of the sad irony that many must eye death before they can properly savor life.