Jessie Buckley in Alex Garland’s ‘Men’: Film Review

A traumatized widow seeks a place to heal in an English country house where she instead finds herself in an escalating nightmare in this surreal folk horror, also starring Rory Kinnear.

The hallucinatory vein that makes so much of Alex Garland’s work for the screen mess with your head in unique ways has perhaps never been more unsettling than in his third feature as writer-director, Men. Building maniacally on current conversations about masculine aggression and female trauma, the film lays the groundwork for familiar folk horror, with a vulnerable woman in a quietly insidious environment, before taking a bizzaro turn into trippy body horror that hits new heights of WTF weirdness. Riveting performances from Jessie Buckley and a truly chameleonic Rory Kinnear make this A24 conversation-starter an unconventional genre standout.

While the movie begins with Buckley’s grieving Harper needled by men in ways that are less overtly hostile and invasive than awkward and unnerving, the regenerative cycles of abhorrent male behavior gradually are exposed with graphic bluntness. That raises the question as to whether Men might be considered a feminist horror movie, though the pathetic spiral of the male characters is observed with what seems more like sorrowful pity than judgment, despite the story’s dizzying descent into the grotesque.

Men

The Bottom Line

A mind-bending dissection of manhood.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Release date: Friday, May 20
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin, Sarah Twomey
Director-screenwriter: Alex Garland


Rated R,
1 hour 40 minutes

The fact that the outcome is wide open to different interpretations makes Men a more ambiguous work than Garland’s sci-fi horror hybrids, Ex Machina and Annihilation. It’s also more menacing and viscerally creepy.

That’s due in no small part to the visuals of the director’s regular DP, Rob Hardy, with stately compositions steadily giving way to lurching chaos. Of equal importance is the enveloping sound design of Glenn Freemantle, a diabolical aural assault that mixes a natural world both serene and oppressive with a nerve-jangling score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, which draws choral inspiration from early religious music. Those elements are fed directly by Harper’s own voice, singing into a stone-walled tunnel to test the echo, or screaming in pain as a memory intrudes on her solitude in a church.

Christian and pagan worlds co-exist in the medieval village to which Harper retreats, providing another enigmatic layer to a story that defies tidy explanation but definitely leaves you thinking.

The less you know about Men going in, the better. But the basic set-up is a newly widowed woman seeking peace after witnessing a shocking tragedy. The image of Harper’s husband James (Pappa Essiedu) falling from the top of their sleek London apartment building by the Thames breaks into her thoughts at random moments, with the tension of their final argument — she is adamant that divorce is their only option; he begs her to reconsider, threatening to kill himself if she refuses — slowly revealed in fragments.

Harper drives alone to the country house nestled in verdant woodlands where she plans to spend two weeks recuperating. At first, she seems mildly amused by the clumsy humor of the owner, Geoffrey (Kinnear); he makes a joke about the guest helping herself to an apple from the tree, a symbolic nod that’s also a wink from Garland. Still, she’s visibly anxious to be done with the tour and get unctuous Geoffrey out so she can begin some much-needed alone time. But the deep crimson walls hint that this will not be an ideal place for recovery and relaxation.

A walk along the old railway track soon shifts her mood from calm to alarm when she sees a naked, dirt-smeared man watching her from a distance. That silent stranger reappears throughout, transforming into the English mythological figure of the Green Man as he inserts leaves and twigs into the wounds on his face and body, becoming the foliage-clad manifestation of the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

The more ordinary male mortals that inhabit the town — women are invisible, aside from one police officer (Sarah Twomey) — are only marginally less irksome, even if their micro-aggressions initially seem less of a threat. They include a vicar whose intimate body language seems possibly innocent until he starts interrogating Harper about her role in James’ death; a troubled schoolboy in a Marilyn Monroe mask named Samuel, who turns nasty when Harper declines to play hide and seek; a self-important cop; a standard-issue country publican; and a mullet-headed thug or two. Garland knowingly toys with the “final girl” trope by making Harper virtually the only girl.

The director’s real stroke of genius, however, was to have all those male characters played by Kinnear — with a virtuoso range of physical and vocal modulation, expert help from the makeup and hair department, and a digital assist in one case. They are fractured aspects of the same man, all hiding their insecurities behind masks of civility, sanctity or authority, ruggedness or rudeness. When Geoffrey volunteers to search the grounds around the house for an intruder, he blurts out his father’s words to him at age 7 — “You have precisely the qualities of a failed military man” — before setting out to prove the old man wrong in what seems a lifetime’s futile quest.

Once lines start to dissolve between the Green Man and Geoffrey, the vicar and Samuel, Harper has only her own resolve for protection, a situation Buckley imbues with a tightrope balance between terror and resourcefulness. She recoils in fear from the men, who appear to fear her just as much, despite their threatening attitude. Male potency ultimately loses out, with men enfeebled by their desire while women remain self-possessed, ruled by intelligence and acute defense mechanisms.

All this plays out with profuse blood, carnage (you’ll never look at the mail slot in an English front door the same way again) and a jaw-dropping display of subversive reproductive imagery that might have devolved into silliness in a script with less on its mind. The body horror prosthetics are gruesomely effective, recalling the vintage Cronenberg of The Brood. But what’s most distinctive about the film’s climactic mayhem is the unexpected compassion it draws out in Harper, perhaps mindful of the helplessness of men doomed to keep reliving their crippling flaws and impossible needs for eternity.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Distribution: A24
Production company: DNA Films
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin, Sarah Twomey
Director-screenwriter: Alex Garland
Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Mark Digby
Costume designer: Lisa Duncan
Music: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Editor: Jake Roberts
Visual effects supervisor: David Simpson
Sound designer: Glenn Freemantle
Casting: Kharmel Cochrane

Rated R, 1 hour 40 minutes

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