Alex Garland has put together an interesting career as a novelist, a screenwriter, a television producer, a writer and story supervisor for video games, and of course film directing. His past screenplays include “28 Days Later” and its sequel “28 Weeks Later”, “Never Let Me Go”, and “Dredd”. He became a full-fledged writer-director in 2014 with the highly acclaimed “Ex Machina” followed by the fascinating “Annihilation”. Now he’s back with the equally intriguing “Men”.
“Men” is a surreal-ish folk horror film that can best be described as an admirable mess. It takes some big swings resulting in a terrific setup, and it features some bold creative choices that you can’t help but admire. Jessie Buckley (as always) gives a powerful performance and does a superb job anchoring us in her character’s hellish reality. And Rory Kinnear’s chameleon-like presence (playing different faces of the film’s multi-headed monster) will make your skin crawl. There’s lots to like here.
What’s disappointing is how surprisingly little the film has to say aside from men are bad, they’ve always been bad, and from the looks of things they’ll always be bad, at least from the experience of Buckley’s Harper Marlowe. But rather than engaging his audience and stirring them to think, Garland’s straightforward pared-down approach leaves us asking the wrong kinds of questions as we look for meaning outside of his blunt messaging.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that as a man who left the theater cradling his bruised ego. I fully expected that to be the message of the movie (the aggressively direct and accusatory title left little doubt). In fact, I was excited to see how Garland explored that notion through the experience of Buckley’s character. But I also expected more depth and nuance. Themes of grief, guilt, and loss barely crack the surface. And if you strain you can see some of Garland’s reoccurring interests in identity and isolation. But all of those things are clearly secondary concerns.
Buckley’s Harper is a compelling character and one we eagerly get behind despite learning painfully little about her. Traumatized after watching her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) fall (or did he jump?) to his death from their high-rise apartment, Harper heads out to the countryside for a time of healing. She rents a remote country manor owned by a strange but cordial man named Geoffrey (Kinnear). It’s an idyllic place nestled among rolling green pastures, lush forests, and it’s only a stones throw from a nearby village. It seems like the perfect place for Harper to recalibrate.
Garland and his go-to DP Rob Hardy hone in on the area’s natural beauty with one postcard quality image after another. But they also infuse those same images with a persistent sense of unease. Take when Harper goes out for a walk shortly after arriving. The richly verdant scenery is stunning, but the sense of dread grows with each step she takes. She finally makes it home, but doesn’t notice the fully naked man (also Kinnear) who follows her out of the woods and begins skulking around her Airbnb.
Later while visiting an old local church, Harper encounters a handsy vicar (also Kinnear) who seems to blame her for her husband’s death. Afterwards she stops by the village pub where she encounters several other unsavory men (all played by Kinnear) – a policeman, a bartender, and a redneck. She’s even berated by a young delinquent boy with Kinnear’s likeness digitally projected on the kid’s face (it’s effectively creepy but at times glaringly fake).
Kinnear gives each of his characters their own distinct personalities, but there’s also a startling similitude between them. Each represent different shades of twisted masculinity and each push their own self-absorbed sense of empowerment over Harper. It’s a thoroughly engrossing setup but one barely explored. Instead it’s all streamlined into an on-the-nose metaphorical finish – a grotesque body-horror climax that left one poor soul sitting in my row shuttering in discomfort. It’s utterly bonkers but very obvious. And it’s the kind of ending that grabs attention but doesn’t provoke the kind of deep thought it clearly wants to.
As I left “Men” I remember wondering to myself about the movie’s point-of-view? Was it Harper’s or Garland’s or both? If it’s Harper’s, then the film misses out on an opportunity to really explore her experiences and the layers of abuse found in them. If it’s Garland’s, then the cynical “Men” takes the cheap and easy approach to its subject. If it’s both…. well, remember that “admirable mess” I mentioned above. It’s a shame because the movie starts off really strong. But it’s glaringly obvious ending isn’t nearly as crafty as it tries to be, and no amount of zany grotesquery can quite make up for it. “Men” is out now in theaters.