Written & Directed by Alex Garland
Men. The title alone is rather gripping, no? Creator Alex Garland’s follow-up film to Annihilation and Ex-Machina, Men is a bloodied folklore centring on the pugnacity of male antagonism. A broad statement for the film to make – and the foundation of Garland’s narrative of one woman, Harper, seeking refuge after her husband’s suicide, where the men surrounding her are cut from the same insuperable and archaic cloth.
Having found one place, in her friend Riley’s (Gayle Rankin) words she chooses to ‘heal’. That place is the luxury of an opulent manor house Harper has rented to escape her husband’s brutal death. Before she’s had time to change her name or remove the title, flashbacks of a spoiled, unseemly orange flat show the truth about Harper and her husband James. After a request for a divorce, he strikes her, threatening to end his life. She’ll never know if the ensuing death was an accident, or indeed intentional, but the memory of this will never leave.
A local shop, for local people. There’s an inescapable nuance of Jessie Buckley being trapped in a feature-length episode of League of Gentleman. The distinguishing feature of the film is that the entire male cast (save for Harper’s ex-husband James, Pappa Essiedu) is played by Rory Kinnear. Refusing to play the typical victim, Buckely never takes the film lying down. An active protagonist with unclear motivations and thoughts on occasion, her performance is a curious one, inquisitive and distinct from the usual horror heroine.
And whatever the viewer’s taste in men Garlands delivers. Sleazy Kinnear, Preacher Kinnear, Pub Kinnear, hell, even creepy deep-faked teen Kinnear. There’s an undoubted trance to them all, even the more repulsive and authentic portrayals amidst the lot. But who is accountable for the atrocities of the film? Garland may blanket sweep men, but for all the proclaimed self-awareness in the script, there’s a breath-halting worry that there’s a suggested excuse for men to avoid accountability. A dangerous excuse.
Outside of the visual gore and folk horror connection, Men’s layered and more unsettling horror aspects arise in Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score, though it feels at times overblown, with Harper’s echoing cries harmonising with the more operatic elements for a distorting overload. Yet it all ties richly back into the Pagan and Christian iconography spread throughout; that of the temptation within the Garden of Eden, the Apple, or the frequent depictions of the baptismal font featuring the Green Man and Sheela na gig, a nude woman displaying her open vulva. An invitation for evil? Or a means to spurn – it all reinforces this misconception among male filmmakers that to aid their feminist certifications, to be a part of the team, a wink and a nudge analogy is enough.
Much to Garland’s dissatisfaction, it isn’t. There is the significant failure of too much and too soon, and plastering imagery without substance. Garland may swiftly and effectively build a sense of folksy apprehension, of the quaintness of the village belaying something detached and skirting reality, but the pay-off of the Green Man, of the grotesque physicality of peril, are introduced prematurely and devalued.
Men’s a tricky one. A sadistic urge to rewatch the film, despite its shortcomings, arises – similarly to the trailer’s initial release. The curiosity of Garland’s film is an itch which is never fully scratched, even after viewing. It feels like there should be something more than the excessively intense body horror, the folklore inspirations and surface-level insights into victimhood and gaslighting. But there isn’t.