BASICALLY…: A woman (Buckley) finds herself haunted by a mysterious entity (Kinnear)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
While it lacks the stunning (and Oscar-winning) CG work of Ex Machina, or the terrifying alien beast-hounds of Annihilation, Alex Garland’s third film as writer and director still manages to be the filmmaker’s most ambitious film to date. Men, the title that saw many an audience member snicker at its reveal in the trailer after every play in the cinema, aims big, and more often than not hits close enough to the target. It is an undeniably creepy and unsettling experience, filled with bonkers imagery that you’ll never be entirely able to get out of your head, no matter how hard you may try.
Conceptually, though, Men doesn’t have quite as much depth as Garland’s previous two films, or at least not as much as it probably thinks it does. With a title like Men, it’s pretty obvious what kinds of themes the movie has on its mind, and because of that – especially compared to the filmmaker’s two previous, much more thematically richer movies – it isn’t surprising that it’s been getting mixed feedback thus far. For the most part, though, it’s never dull, and regardless of subtlety it’s an intense watch that certainly finds a way of sticking with you.
The film starts as young widow Harper (Jessie Buckley, great as always) arrives at a getaway cottage in the English countryside, for a solo holiday not long after the death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu). After being shown around the place by the “very country” – Harper’s words, not mine – landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), Harper settles in for what she intends to be a relaxing trip. Unfortunately, this being a horror film, that very quickly turns out to not be the case, as she ends up having quite a few unpleasant encounters with several men in the quiet village, from the local vicar to a police officer to even a young boy – all played by Rory Kinnear also – which soon makes her getaway so much more frightening than she had ever intended.
As already mentioned, the themes on display here pretty much write themselves, and Garland – for better or worse – sticks closely by them while trying to also prevent his movie from being just another “men are terrible” allegory that could easily be summed up in a tweet. Harper, almost inevitably, is subject to extreme levels of misogyny and passive-aggression by the many Kinnears surrounding her; Geoffrey frequently and chauvinistically attempts to come to the aid of his “damsel in distress”, and the vicar coldly trying to justify the mistreatment she suffered at the hands of her husband (who in flashbacks is shown to have been an emotionally and physically abusive spouse). Even the sullen young boy – who unfortunately suffers from the single worst CG effect in the movie, as Kinnear’s face has been transplanted onto a young actor’s body with (perhaps intentionally) horrifying uncanny valley results – calls her a “stupid bitch” when she refuses to play hide-and-seek with him. Although the concept of the multiple Kinnears is interestingly never addressed, not even by Harper, it’s clear that Garland is going for shock value in his presentation of deep misogyny, but sometimes the bluntness of it all robs the chilling scenes of much-needed weight, since it is hardly the first time a film has depicted the horrors of simply being a woman, and so it often strives to say something about it other than what virtually everyone on the planet, regardless of gender, knows all too well by this point.
What Men lacks in subtlety – and trust me when I say, it’s about as subtle as a knife slowly slicing an arm into two down the middle – it manages to make up for in pure mood and atmosphere. While it’s far from Garland’s finest writing, the film contains some solid direction that makes effective use of cinematography, editing and especially the musical score to convey an endless sense of dread and despair. Garland, in an extremely wise move, forgoes the horror trope of the loud music stinger whenever a sudden figure comes into frame; instead, the silence that accompanies the initial appearance makes both the shot and the reveal far creepier and thus more effective. Shots of dark, empty tunnels and menacing indoor lighting also underline the unnerving sense that nothing is as peaceful as it should be, and Garland is a strong enough filmmaker to visually recognise the importance of building suspense and overall tone to establish his much more on-the-nose themes without relying too much on tired, conventional methods.
The movie does well at holding your attention throughout (as a bonus, the 100 minute runtime goes by pretty fast), but by the time you reach the climax, you will not be able to look away. There are things that happen on-screen in this film that you simply won’t believe, and cannot for the life of you think back to where you might have seen stuff like it before; what unfolds is an utterly unique, and entirely batshit, set of visuals that brings to mind not just the body horror of David Cronenberg, but also the surreal, even abstract ideas and visuals of something like Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which would honestly make a good double-feature alongside Men in the future (if the folks at the Prince Charles Cinema in London are reading this, get on making this screening event a reality!). The mixture of Garland’s heavily ambitious visual prowess, and the masterful chameleon-like performances of Rory Kinnear, create a climax that is almost certain to linger long in the memory, no matter what your overall opinions are on the film.
Though I can’t say that Men is as immediately impressive as Ex Machina or Annihilation, it is still a very interesting movie to talk about in regards to Garland’s short – but thus far mostly prosperous – career as writer and director. Is it subtle? Hell no; you should know right away what to expect from a horror movie with that title, and it gives you exactly that but not much else. However, with its overall intentions left open for interpretation, not to mention it being an exceptionally made film, at the very least Men is bound to ignite heavy debate amongst viewers – which, really, is the best kind of compliment you can make toward a pretty divisive film like this.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Men might not contain the rich thematic depth of Alex Garland’s previous two films as writer and director, but whatever it lacks in subtlety is made up for with some intriguing and ambitious filmmaking, which create a truly unnerving mood and tone that stays with you long after even the absolutely bonkers climax.