…Hey, I'm just being honest. But if you groaned at that, I can tell you right now, Men is probably not a movie for you. But I still hope you give it a chance, because Alex Garland’s Men is a brilliant piece of cinema that castrates the fragility of the male ego.
Written/directed by Alex Garland (Annihilation), Men stars Jessie Buckley as Harper, who has rented a cottage in the countryside to get away and reconnect with herself after the suicide of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Said cottage is owned by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), an odd man who seems a little too interested in Harper’s marital status. But Harper isn’t about to let that stop her from enjoying the gorgeous cottage…until a naked man follows her out of the woods, and every man in town appears intent on making her feel as unsafe as possible.
Men isn’t exactly subtle about its message, nor should it be, because for too many, dealing with male toxicity is a part of their daily lives. That message is yes, all men, screamed through the screen at the top of the film’s lungs through such frustration that maybe, hopefully, some men will finally get it.
I won’t hold my breath, though.
Capturing that meld of terrified anger is Buckley, who delivers a heart-wrenching performance that consistently shatters the viewer to pieces, puts them back together, and shatters them again. Before a single frame is shown, her story is already a devastating one. A woman who wanted to be free of her abusive husband, held captive by his promise that he would kill himself if she left him. Forever haunted by him now, unable to have the freedom she deserves. It’s a story that too many have experienced in Harper’s shoes, and that too many men will be able to see themselves in through James. The horrible authenticity which Garland presents through these two is painful to the core. You’d have to be an undead ghoul to not connect intimately with Harper. Buckley expresses the torment of her character in a raw, powerful portrayal that gives the sensation of scratching at a wound that just won’t heal.
Men will move you, break you, and scare the hell out of you.
Doing most of the scaring is Rory Kinnear, who eats up every scene with a sinister presence. It’s difficult enough to portray that “kind of charming but deeply unnerving” Hannibal Lecter type of character—which Kinnear does in spades throughout—but to accomplish that with multiple characters? Give the man the Oscar for best supporting actor now. He’s earned it. Kinnear seamlessly switches from grinning oddball to cold menace in an instant, with a delivery that slithers beneath the flesh and coils around your frantically beating heart.
For those wondering why Harper doesn’t get the hell out of dodge the moment she sees Geoffrey’s face everywhere, well…
Part of the brilliance of Garland’s film is in how it puts the audience through a psychological grinder with a sprinkling of religious folk horror--a bite of an apple from the garden, anyone?--that leaves you dazed and confused while trying to shake off the cold sweat creeping up your spine. Harper faces both conventional and non-conventional horror elements to keep her isolated, but having Kinnear play every man in the film except James is an effective way to convey the “all men” narrative. It isn’t that Harper is seeing Geoffrey’s face everywhere. Garland is mind-fucking the audience into understanding that from Harper’s point of view, one shared by many, all men carry within them the same fragile ego with a potential for violence when tested, the same unnerving objectification, the same need to control. No man is to be trusted until he can prove otherwise, and even then...
Looking around at current events in the world, I’d say that’s logical reasoning.
Men is filled to the brim with a needling sense of dread that bubbles and boils until it spills over into a jaw-dropping third act that you have to see to believe. Everywhere Harper goes, there’s a feeling that eyes are on her, whether watching from within a dark tunnel that seems to stretch on forever, or the very real eyes of the naked man staring at her from outside the windows of the cottage, a scene which is masterfully framed by Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy to illicit maximum terror. Even the calmest moments are sometimes the most uncomfortable, as Harper occasionally lets her guard down with a man for the briefest moment, only to have him show his true colors. Knowing it’s coming is almost unbearable. Men takes great joy in making the audience squirm.
Through disorienting edits and well-paced scares, Garland blends breath-taking surrealism with the stark terror of a harsh reality in such a way that you can find yourself with jaw agape, stunned by the beauty of the scene, only to have your throat chocked by a scream with a sudden rush of shocking horror. This is the tragedy of Harper and too many women. All she wants is to be able to enjoy the world around her, yet nothing, not even a drink at the bar, can be experienced without a man ruining it for her. There’s plenty of intense horror within Men, but perhaps the most terrifying aspect of it all is that Harper can’t even look out a window without the burden of James’ death that he has placed on her. Dead or alive, she can’t escape the grasp of men.
While Men is certainly a distressing film at times equivalent to sitting in a cramped airplane chair with little spikes in the seat, Garland incorporates just enough outrageous, totally bonkers gore and black humor to keep things lively. Men has moments that most diehard gorehounds will squeal at, played in good fun to get you laughing and gasping all at once. It feels odd to call Men a “fun” movie, but, weirdly enough, it is. For every moment of unsettling terror, there’s a tongue in cheek wink that is so utterly absurd, you can’t help but giggle. Garland knows exactly when to ease the tension without undercutting the overall power of the film. This is as A24 meets Alex Garland as it gets, where you’ll constantly find yourself asking what the hell is happening, but will be too fascinated by what’s on screen to care.
There are going to be those who claim Men is “too political” or “man hating” or whatever other nonsense they want to subscribe to. That’s fine. This film isn’t for them. But for the rest of you, Men is a frightening, surprisingly funny mix of psychological dread and absurd folk horror as entertaining as it is scary. Without a doubt, it’s destined to be one of the most unforgettable films of the year.
Men arrives in theaters on May 20th from A24.
By Matt Konopka
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