Lately, when I walk into a movie theater, I am desperate to feel. In this total darkness, surrounded by strangers, is the potential for poetry and challenge. Film, at the height of its powers, isn’t just a material, aesthetic, and visual experience but a spiritual one, and the writer-director Alex Garland has met my expectations before. As the screenwriter for the fiery, closed-quarters Sunshine and the zombie treatise 28 Days Later, Garland moved through the ecstatic wonders of genre fiction before turning his attention to directing with the slippery and imperfect Ex Machina. That 2014 science-fiction film was equal turns beguiling and frustrating, and it wasn’t until 2018’s Annihilation that Garland was able to create — alongside cinematographer Rob Hardy and stars including Natalie Portman — a work of potent complication. Nestled into its scenes of body mangling and its formal experimentation is a story about depression and loss. Garland and his collaborators found a way to communicate these ideas with subtlety and without forgetting the queasy pleasures that can be found in horror.
It’s a balance Garland seems to have forgotten while making his latest feature. Men is a simple, pared-down film, focusing on Harper (Jessie Buckley), a widow reeling from the tangled emotions that come with the death of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Harper seeks healing by renting a bucolic 500-year-old estate in the English countryside managed by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). The unease settles in quickly. When Geoffrey sees that Harper has taken a bite of an apple from the tree in the front yard, he scolds her sharply in what is moments later framed as a joke: “No, you mustn’t do that. Forbidden fruit” — a brief interaction that sets up the religious currents that will rush forth from the film. Touring the facilities’ bathroom, Geoffrey commands, “Ladies, do watch what you flush.”
Harper’s refuge soon devolves into repeated violences, all perpetrated by men, all played by Kinnear. She is stalked by a naked man who tries to break into the estate, a crime disregarded by the inept policeman charged with investigating. An adolescent boy demands she play hide-and-seek, then calls her a “stupid bitch” when she rebuffs him. We also learn more about her final moments with James; in flashbacks, a picture of a relationship defined by abuse begins to coalesce.
The scenes set in the present are vibrant, verdant to the point of garish. Scenes set in the past take a different approach. In the apartment Harper shared with her husband, the lighting is downright apocalyptic, aching with orange, marigold, crimson. In his small role, Essiedu is asked to play a single note of desperate emotional manipulation. James warned Harper he would kill himself if she divorced him, as she wished to do. Once his violence turned physical, Harper only grew more resolute. Now she’s haunted by his death and the broken body he left behind. A series of questions weigh on her psyche: Did he slip off the upstairs neighbor’s balcony after breaking into the home? Or did he mean to kill himself? Essiedu’s role is thinly drawn beyond the force and effects of his violence, giving the film disturbing racial undercurrents. His body is a site of horror. His soul and interiority are nowhere to be found.
We don’t learn much about Harper either: She works in finance (maybe?), plays the piano, and has a charming friendship with a woman named Riley (a wry Gayle Rankin), whom she talks to on FaceTime as the incidents of her life trip into stranger and stranger territory. But Buckley nails the tricksy confrontations that send Harper’s fears and fight for survival into overdrive. She tries to tuck memories away only for them to come roaring back — breathing deeply, then raggedly, then crying after a flashback sends her into a cavalcade of warring emotions. It’s a crisp rendition of a psychological haunting.
Kinnear has the difficult task of embodying a variety of misogynists separated only by their costuming, terrible haircuts, and, sometimes, obscenely large teeth. His patronizing overtones nag throughout his early scenes as Geoffrey. At one point, he plays an adolescent, his face digitally grafted onto a kid’s body, his voice slightly altered. It doesn’t quite work, and Kinnear is at his best as a gray-haired vicar who first offers Harper solace, then, when she opens up, blames her for James’s death. The film is at its best here, painting a grotesque portrait of contempt for women tinged with dangerous lust. As the film rages toward a climax, Harper finds herself housed in the estate’s red-walled bathroom with the repulsive vicar, her fear and his sexual desire evident in the blocking and framing. The potential for great sexual violence hangs in the air. A knife is held. Blood pours forth. You can almost feel his breath on her face, her pulse quickening.
The tension and weirdness of Harper’s situation progresses to a bombastically fleshy finale. Yet despite all the broken bones, the graphic deaths, and the copious amounts of blood, the driving idea behind Men is not bold enough to feel frightening. Instead, it’s remarkably tepid. Garland renders misogyny airless, reduced to a primal issue rather than one that is man-made. Prejudice is framed as a constant, forever replicating itself in new guises; the film’s characters read as threadbare ideas rather than people. In many ways, Men rests on an understanding of modern “prestige” horror preferred by production company A24: It should be more than grotesqueries — it should have a message, often bluntly communicated. The message behind Men amounts to “Damn, misogyny is crazy, right?”
Still, the film is handsome, reuniting Garland with cinematographer Hardy as well as Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the people behind the Annihilation score. I also admire Men’s efforts to braid together primal pagan imagery, though this turns out to be yet more style in search of meaning, which continuously slips through the fingers of the filmmakers. In the town’s church is a stone basin of sorts. One side is carved with the visage of a man who has leaves for a face, a representation of rebirth known as Green Man. The other is carved with an image of Sheela na gig, a naked woman, legs splayed, holding open an exaggerated vulva. Academics have argued over Sheela na gig’s meaning and use: Does she provide protection against evil, or is she a warning against sin? Doesn’t matter. Despite how charged these stone carvings are in real life, they prove to be nothing more than clever window dressing for the film.
Men’s ending is marked by violence and gore to extreme degrees, involving the destruction of flesh and expectations. This should have been chilling, piercing even. Instead, as it drew out, I felt unmoved and distant. A horror film doesn’t need a grand message, political or otherwise. But Men is desperate to find one in all its contortions. What we’re left with is blood and gristle and sinew without the skeleton to hold it up.
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