Written and directed by Alex Garland
Harper and James are fighting. It’s a bad one. The married couple screams, hurls insults, cries and moans as James rails against Harper’s wish for divorce. More than just desperate, he says he’ll kill himself and that Harper will have to live with that guilt. Cruel and craven. Words turn violent, and while Harper manages to force James out the door, he soon hurls right past the balcony of their apartment, destined for his end at street-level. Harper blacks out from trauma.
We come alive some time later, as Harper drives through the picturesque English countryside, weaving through fields, villages and past picture card cottages. She arrives at an old manor, fit for a noblewoman (and staff), and settles in for two weeks of unwinding and uncoupling. Rural rest and relaxation far from the gruesome memories of urban London.
It’s short-lived, as a mysterious man begins stalking her, and the ensuing chase in the tiny quiet village takes many unexpected, disturbing turns, as Alex Garland returns with a new metaphor-heavy outing in Men.
The mystery is not unexpected, considering Garland’s two other features, Ex Machina and Annihilation, are both mind-benders in their own way and similarly laden with existential dread. Harper, above all, is deeply traumatized by her last relationship. What it became, what it did to the person she loved enough to marry, and how it ended, with cursed words still hanging in the air.
James, brought to despair for reasons not disclosed, was not a good man in his final hours. Abusing Harper mentally and physically, his lasting image will be one of guilt-tripping, manipulation, and man-child tantrum. Easy to identify, if harder to shake for Harper, but Garland soon lays his wider ideas on thick, as every man she encounters espouses some shade of misogyny, either with blunt curses spat at her, or the more insidious kind where men’s bad behavior is minimized and women’s “inability” to stop such behavior is maximized. Why didn’t you give him a second chance after he beat you? Why did you kick him out? It’s not that big a deal, you overreacted, and so on, and so on.
It’s easy to see where Garland is going in Men, but the message is still delivered with icy chill as he proves himself a master of tension and atmosphere. Summoning Sam Peckinpah’s Stray Dogs in how helpless one can feel as an outsider in a community turned against you, Garland also mixes in occultism, the supernatural, plain home invasion terror, and some grotesque body horror that would make David Cronenberg wince.
Where Ex Machina offered pinpoint sci-fi and matching aesthetics, and Annihilation offered a wide scope in its mystery, Men is more of a loud riff on a singular idea backed by a finely tuned production, offering entertainment for its runtime, but I imagine it’ll have less staying power with time.
Terror is fun, and you can twist all you want in your seat at the squelching, snapping and crashing, leaving Men akin to 80s horror films who made their intentions clear early on, and even comes back around to make it even clearer at the end. The consequence is the visual effects and mood will be what you return to if so, as every other long-term pleasure has been taken from you with Garland’s zeal to pontificate.
It’s not particularly insightful, and the more Men reveals about itself, the more tedious it is. What keeps it fun is the suspense Garland creates, alongside his central performances. In the middle, fighting for her life, is Jessie Buckley as Harper, who can channel vulnerability as well as fortitude as she takes on her demons. Rory Kinnear clocks in the hours as said demons, and must roll out a multitude of personas as Geoffrey. He’s perfectly cast, equally able to don the gray likeness of an everyday man, as he is capable of hamming it as a smarmy oaf, as well as letting all hell loose as a hateful brute. An underappreciated presence in the world of film, this actual thespian.
Men ultimately is a pointed finger in your chest and a gesticulating hand in your face. You may like what it’s saying, but for those leaning towards sophisticated persuasion, Men is likely too brash an affair, like a film bro half-shouting in your ear as he mansplains the film you just watched while you stare dead-eyed ahead with a drink in hand wondering why you ever leave the house.