What, if anything, is Alex Garland trying to say in each film? It’s never spoonfed to the audience, often leaving them baffled and irritated, but you get the overwhelming sense that he knows. He’s just not going to tell you.
Those familiar with the director’s work will know him as a genre nut. From the blazing space epic Sunshine to the eerie found-family horror of 28 Days Later, his writing credits have always been provocative and emotional efforts that often found safety in the hands of director Danny Boyle. Garland’s own turns in the chair were also noteworthy, from the A.I.-panic film Ex Machina to his deeply unsettling treatise on grief, Annihilation, and both entries turned out to be some of the best science fiction in ages. Neither film was easy, asking a great many questions and trusting his audience to know the answers or at least to parse a few for themselves. Men is the first of his films to directly identify as a horror film, a mean little thing filled with tension and some things you can’t unsee, but it steps even further into the Lynchian territory of ambiguity and open-interpretation that most audiences will either mine gold or turn their noses, convinced that Garland has begun to spelunk a little too far up his own ass.
We join Harper (Jesse Buckley) as she heads to the English countryside (shot on location in Gloucestershire) to unwind after a personal tragedy. Her husband, James (Papa Essiedu), has recently died in a tragic accident that might not have been so accidental, and her memory of it is still flashing through her brain. A quick tour from the proprietor, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), takes us through a gorgeous house that is to be her home for the next two weeks and sets the stage for what’s to come. His jokes and awkward pauses between comments about tampons and Biblical warnings about the apple tree in the front seem harmless, but that screaming silence between each suggests that he may have less than respect for Harper. This small town will become a nightmare, with Harper being stalked by a naked man that follows her out of the woods (Rory Kinnear), bullied by a spoiled child that wants to play (Rory Kinnear), eyeballed and insulted by a lecherous vicar (Rory Kinnear), belittled by a police officer and his bartender buddy (Rory Kinnear and Rory Kinnear), and gazed upon with a look full of equal parts disgust and desire by a soccer hooligan (Rory Kinnear). What’s going on in this small village? Well, a lot of that will be up to you to figure out.
A lesser film would have used this trick in a much lazier way, with Buckley openly recognizing that the men are all the same man or having them all wear the face of her late husband, but Garland isn’t interested in something that easy. Buckley never shows that she notices, but what is this to suggest? Is she perhaps viewing all men as the same, not only in their physical appearance but in the ways they gaslight and demand of her? The film lends a strong sense of entitlement to its male characters, but perhaps the most honest is Kinnear’s youthful brat. Wearing the mask of a woman’s face, he asks Harper if she’ll play hide and seek with him. She replies that she’s not in the mood and he continues to speak as though it is going to happen anyway, eventually stalking off into the grey afternoon with only a venomous “stupid bitch” spat at Buckley on his way off. This serves as a great parallel to the behavior of her late husband, told in flashbacks that reveal the ten minutes leading up to the fall.
Those flashback sequences are in high contrast to our present-day horrors, though they serve as a nightmare of their own. The Gloucestershire countryside is beautifully shot under the area’s lovely grey skies, but cinematographer Rob Hardy helped Garland put something together that feels more apocalyptic for his flashback sequences that are bathed in fiery orange light. With only three real locations to shoot in (the countryside, the flashbacks in the apartment, and the fittingly eerie rented house) each stands out with a life of its own.
But what, then, of the last twenty minutes? Garland spends the first hour building up an excellent string of tension and discomfort, but the film’s final act descends into true body horror and grotesqueries in a way that sort of collapses in on itself. While this may be a very controlled implosion, it still makes for an uncomfortable finale to a film that was doing so well. I often found myself more bemused than genuinely frightened (though most of my audience was squirming), but that doesn’t take away from the staying power of what I witnessed. It’s a powerful ending, but I don’t wonder how much higher it might have reached if there had been a bit more room to breathe.
It’s lucky for that finale that Buckley and Kinnear are completely dedicated to this weird, freaky final act. Jesse Buckley has been a steady hand, often able to portray strength on the verge of failing in films like I’m Thinking of Ending Things and The Lost Daughter, and she spends most of this runtime reminding us just how solid of a performer she is. Kinnear is clearly having the time of his life, moving from costume to costume and dental structure to dental structure with glee and passion. The uncanny-valley effect of his face on the body of a small child somehow only adds to the sensation that something is unfathomably wrong. These two are joined by a returning pair in Garland’s stable – Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The two musicians have crafted an undeniably frightening score that holds nothing back when attempting to ratchet up tension or sock us in the balls.
Is Men something you’d be interested in? Your mileage is going to vary here. Garland is deft enough to avoid a heavy-handed approach to the sociopolitical aspects of a film like this being made in an era where #NotAllMen can trend on Twitter, but many of the less-fair sex will find themselves uncomfortable at being the villains of a film that paints them as more pathetic than frightening. Perhaps they should, though most that need that point will eschew this film (don’t forget, there’s still a Marvel movie for them to see instead). Ah, well, Alex Garland’s excellent but wonky film will receive the same treatment as its protagonist in that regard. Still, if you find yourself thinking that maybe you’d like to take a whirl with Men I urge you to. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the most singularly unique experiences I’ve had at the theatre in years.
Men is currently playing in theatres.