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DIRECTED BY: Alex Garland
FEATURING: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu
PLOT: Harper rents a remote English manor house to recover after what could euphemistically be called a “bad breakup”; she finds herself haunted by a strange nude stalker, and condescended to by the odd and unsympathetic men of the nearby village.
COMMENTS: Alex Garland does his latest movie no favors by giving it the in-your-face, on-the-nose title Men, provoking accusations of “wokeness” and scolding responses of “not all men…” From the other side of the aisle, it’s simultaneously eliciting complaints that Garland is Men-splaining toxic masculinity. The title frames the film in a way that undoes a great deal of its subtlety and ambiguity; there would surely be less controversy had Garland named it A Question of Guilt or The Haunted Village or The Randy Vicar or somesuch.
Broad message aside, there’s a lot to enjoy about Men, considered strictly from a psychological horror perspective. The acting is top-notch; Buckley ably and sympathetically carries the film, with quiet moments fearfully wandering the woods as well as a few big outbursts of terror and anger. Rory Kinnear is even better in multiple roles, some subtly uncanny (his friendly but increasingly snoopy landlord) and some less subtly so (an uncommonly mannish schoolboy). The cinematography and sound design are superlative, particularly shining in a scene set in a long lonely tunnel with an unnatural echo that allows Harper to perform an unaccompanied a capella symphony—before she’s interrupted by the sight of a stiff silhouette lurking at the tunnel’s far entrance.
That’s all part of the eerie atmosphere Men sets up before Garland launches into bonkers territory for the third act, basically a long home invasion where characters blink in and out of existence and morph into one another, ending in a climax that one-ups Takashi Miike‘s Gozu. The madness rolls on for so long that, by the end, Harper’s attitude switches from terrified to resigned. But even before that resolution arrives, Garland deploys eccentric and fascinating touches. The local chapel with pagan faces carved on its altar. A shot of a dead deer, its eye perfectly hollowed out by maggots. Dandelion seeds hang in the air, and get swallowed. A horny vicar spouts classical allusions. A naked stalker turns into the Green Man, then into a hermaphrodite. All of the imagery and references don’t quite add up at first glance, but they make Men more interesting than the simplistic “gee-don’t-men-behave-badly?” reading suggests.
The evil of Men is supernatural, but, although symbolic and psychological sources are clear, events are never explicitly justified or explained from inside the narrative. It seems Harper suffers from a curse, one that’s enacted as pure metaphor. Men is more interesting as a psychological horror study unfolding from a specific scenario than as a manifesto on gender relations. Those wider implications should have been left to hang in the subtextual background. Alex Garland has said that he may give up directing to focus on writing. I say, stick with both writing and directing—but let other people come up with your titles.
Men is currently in theaters; we’ll let you know when it arrives on streaming and home video.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Near the end, Garland ramps up the surreal elements and the special effects, gliding towards an over-the-top ending… It’s easy to admire his audacity, even if it is too much even by surreal standards.”–Caryn James, BBC (contemporaneous)
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