- Director: Alex Garland
- Writer: Alex Garland
- Stars: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu
As a horror fan, you are often faced with people questioning what it is about the genre that you enjoy. On the surface, it’s easy for people to assume that horror relies on boobs, blood, bare bones storylines and little else. Or to quote Sidney Prescott, “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” I often tell people that what I really love about horror is that it is always a mirror of what is happening in present day society. Enter Men.
Writer/director Alex Garland has an impressive resume built on surreal storytelling. The Beach, The Tesseract, 28 Days Later, Dredd, Ex Machina and Annihilation are all products of Garland’s unique viewpoint. The only thing you can be certain of when going into an Alex Garland project is that it will absolutely be some sort of mind fuck and Men is no exception. Garland certainly isn’t the first man to churn out a movie that claims to understand the daily plight of simply being female, but he does seem to be the first to successfully recreate the exhaustive tediousness of being female.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) has recently suffered the loss of her husband James and in an effort to heal from the trauma, she has rented a secluded cottage for two weeks. A picturesque home on a beautiful plot of land, it looks like the perfect place to grieve. She can take long walks in the woods, enjoy baths in the huge bathtub, explore the small village and simply enjoy peace and quiet. Through flashbacks, we learn that peace is not something Harper found in her marriage and, unfortunately, she won’t find it here either. The small village where Harper will be staying is inhabited by men and only men. And all of these men are played by character actor Rory Kinnear. We first meet him as Geoffrey, the owner of the cottage who seems harmless enough, but his oddness is just this side of off putting. Geoffrey is friendly enough, but he also manages to make Harper seem rude simply because she craves solitude. After all, aren’t women supposed to be friendly and accommodating at all times? At all turns, Harper manages to offend every man she meets simply by being herself. The police officer finds her to be a paranoid nag, the young boy who runs around in a plastic Marilyn Monroe mask finds her to be a bitch because she doesn’t want to play hide and seek with him and the vicar, well, he is a man of God and with that comes all of the ungodly things that women are responsible for.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. After unpacking, Harper takes a walk through the woods and it’s absolutely lovely. She is truly absorbing the beautiful landscape that surrounds her and when a light rain falls, you feel her exuberance. Of course, along with her eating an apple off of a tree, this rain can feel like such a heavy metaphor that the weight is almost unbearable, but cinematographer Rob Hardy is in peak form with Men. Every single frame of this film is absolutely lush with color and feeling: any and all heavy handed allegory is absolutely forgiven when looking at the world through Hardy’s lens. Echos in a cave, paths through the forest, abandoned farm houses and even a deer carcass are all lovingly and gorgeously presented, which is all the better to work against what is actually happening in Harper’s life. Things look beautiful, but reality rarely is.
Much can be said about whether or not anyone needed another allegorical horror film or another feminist film made by a man and while I respect the naysayers, I will take any and all voices that are willing to take the time to merely think about the female experience and that is where Garland definitely stuck the landing. When Harper first experiences a sense of unease, it’s a feeling that is all too familiar to all women and Garland manages to capture this strange sensation of fear coupled with the nagging doubt of possible overreaction. And just like in life, the moment Harper thinks she can breathe and assume that she was, in fact, being silly, her fear is confirmed.
Ultimately, Harper and the many forms of men in the village will all face off and each represents a different version of man that every single woman has had to tolerate and deal with in life. This movie would be nothing without the superb acting of both Buckley and Kinnear. Buckley vasiclates between fear and the exhaustion of annoyance with a lived in fluidity and Kinnear makes each character unique, however, as the vicar he really excels at being a true piece of misogynistic shit. In a rare moment of candor from Harper, the vicar takes this opportunity to put his hand on her thigh and say things that sound sensitive and understanding, but he is only doing this so she will keep her guard down. He will then go on to tell her that it is actually her fault that her husband died by suicide and later he will accuse her of being the reason that he has carnal thoughts about her. He tells her that this is her power and it’s the control she exerts over him as she uses a knife in an overtly phallic way. Yes, it’s all so clunky but also so very effective and while the biblical overtones can be a bit much, at least they’re not as obscenely overt as what Aronofsky did in Mother!
This same kind of story was done on a smaller scale and, for my money, better executed by Brea Grant in her film Lucky, but Garland does add his special WTF touch and he expertly builds dread and paranoia leading up to a doozy of a final act. I’m sorry to say that this final act is a bit of a let down only because it never seems to stop. Of course, the argument could be made that this mirrors the tediousness of being a woman, but unfortunately, it waters down the push of the overall message. Men is not going to be for everyone, but it would appear the women and their need for equality isn’t for everyone.