Men - Alex Garland's new film explores misogyny in a fairy tale world
3 out of 5
Garland, ever the boldly-going screenwriter of films like “The Beach” and “28 Days Later” and director of decidedly uncommercial films like “Annihilation” and “Ex Machina,” has made his most bewildering, inscrutable film yet. He’s also aware of the terrain he’s dipping into in telling an extremely contemporary horror story about the terror of public spaces women are forced to navigate. That setting, here, is the English countryside, and that woman is Jessie Buckley, playing a cipher of a person named Harper in a kind of one-woman horror show where she is the final girl from start to finish.
Harper is on an ill-conceived solo holiday (retreat?) in an ensconced country home, reeling from the sudden violent death of her husband (Paapa Essiedu), whose exact nature is ever-shifting amid Garland’s puzzle-box editing: Did he jump from the roof of their London apartment complex? Did he fall accidentally? Did Harper somehow will him there? That’s what the men in this world — from the bumbling groundskeeper Geoffrey to an emotionally manipulative vicar to the naked man stalking Harper in the garden — want her to believe. Oh, and they’re all played by Rory Kinnear.
The film explores grief and guilt in a world that, from the very first frame, we are not sure exists, except in Harper's mind. The film does have a dream-like quality from the colour pallette to how she behaves. Add into the mix, stereoptypical male characters who gaslight, abuse and even assault her. It’s also about religion and mythology, to a degree, though how much the viewer engages with these ideological threads may depend on their personal relationship to those themes in real life. The mythology is borrowed from many other sources such The Wicker Man.
Without giving too much away, the third Act becomes a full-on body-horror sequence which has seen some people leave screenings. It is uncomfortbale to watch as, after a succession of hallucinatory and violent confrontations, Harper bears witness to her naked stalker—now sprouting leaves and branches, a living Green Man—giving birth to a man, who gives birth to another man, who gives birth to another man, all of whom have the same torn hand and broken ankle as the one before. It’s violent and blunt body horror, so repetitive and narratively inexplicable that anyone who can stomach the visuals might eventually go numb to the grotesquerie.
Garland, both in his directing choices and in his numerous interviews about Men, has been circumspect about the film’s meaning, particularly its violent crescendo of an ending. He does say in the film’s press notes that the visuals were inspired by “messing around with images of the sheela-na-gig”—medieval carvings of a female figure exposing her private parts—“and the Green Man and finding our way into what became a guy with a vagina on his chest.”
Our own Jessie Buckley (from Killarney) is excellent. As Harper, she is haunted, and Buckley conveys her anxiety with wide, darting eyes, or twisting her mouth in a moue. When she wails in pain in a church pew, viewers can feel her grief ripping through them. The actress, who has been exceptional in everything from "Beast" and "Wild Rose" to "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" and "The Lost Daughter," gives another bravura performance shifting from villain to victim in the divorce story and going from powerless to powerful in the horror story. (A Iengthy, unnerving sequence features her alone in the house like a final girl, brandishing a knife as someone or something tries to get her.) Buckley is commanding on screen because she projects an air of confidence even when she is most freaked out.
What can we say about Rory Kineear? He turns in masterful performances all round. He is an often over-looked actor, left to bit-parts or side-characters. Here, he gets to inhabit many roles and embues them all with definition and variety. Plus we get to see a lot of Rory!
For all his great direction, Garland can get a bit pretentious too. There is an episode featuring a decaying dead deer that may be gorgeously filmed — the camera dives into the animal's eye socket — but it kind of folds in on itself. There are dazzling images, courtesy of Rob Hardy, Garland's ace cinematographer, of the naked man adorning himself with leaves, or blowing dandelion seeds, as well as mystical, portentous shots of stone faces that all must mean something. If only viewers can be bothered to puzzle it out.
Around half-way through the film, the Vicar asks Harper "Do you prefer things to be comfortable or true?" This film is rarely comfortable, and what exactly is true will be up to viewers to decide.