Alex Garland’s third credited directorial feature, Men, is a British folklore-inspired nightmare that is hard to dissect. It seems easy to say that this is another male filmmaker commenting on toxic masculinity in broad strokes and calling it a day. It’s an understandable stance, however, Garland is a far more complex and nuanced filmmaker, and Men makes it very clear that there is more on its mind than just that. In fact, the film is Garland at his most extreme thus far, a complex, distinct and multilayered dive into masculinity as an element in society, far more than simply about toxic masculinity, but a study of the patriarchy in the modern-day as we face a world of change in the way in which we see the gender binary, among many other complex things.
Men focuses on Harper (Jessie Buckley), who escapes to the English countryside after the suicide of her emotionally abusive husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). There she rents an old house from an uncomfortably familiar Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), an all too recognisable figure. As Harper begins to settle into this country escape, she begins to be stalked by a naked man (also played by Kinnear), and begins to meet the locals, primarily men, including a cop (also Kinnear), a schoolboy, Samuel (Kinnear), a vicar (Kinnear), among others. While Harper tries to process the trauma of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s suicide, she is confronted with the existential horror of the men of the village.
The film begins as a fairly typical rural town horror, Garland using the secluded nature of the countryside to good effect, if not it dragging a little. It somewhat undercuts the tension with how patiently paced it is. Where it is tense, it’s an effective use of suspense, but Garland doesn’t quite sustain the sinister feel going throughout the first half. It’s mostly effective, if not a little typical, and while that may be the point, it doesn’t necessarily make the film feel stronger. It’s unnerving in its best moments, but the pacing just feels a little off, it doesn’t quite maintain the tension enough. The second half is another story entirely. This is where Garland shines with his sense of horror. This film is Garland doubling down on everything that put people off of Annihilation, the abstract, metaphorical sense of theme and narrative that frustrated people then is only pushed further in Men, pushing abject terror, body horror and abstract use of film language further than he ever has before, and it’s rather exciting and unnerving to watch. Through this, Garland crafts a complex web of theme and imagery, beginning with a clever, if not blunt, study of masculinity through the single casting of Kinnear in the role of the various men in the village, that becomes laden with messaging through the abject and surreal imagery that follows, that sustains tension and sinister feel for the rest of the runtime. It’s here that Men turns from a solid, if not well-told story of men’s treatment of women into a social commentary that’s far more interesting than at first glance.
It really is Garland’s direction that stuns once more, with cinematography by four-time collaborator Rob Hardy, Garland’s imagery is as stunningly constructed as it is confronting to watch. Garland’s script is one of his weaker elements in this film, not bad, but it feels like it’s lacking certain elements, most evident within the first half of the second act. But he makes up for it in his filmmaking, the way he constructs the world, particularly in the second half of the film, creates such a particular sense of tension and ambiguity, and his confidence in the audience, as much as himself, to trust the art and art form is not only admirable but strengthens the film more. His sense of horror and of the story as a director is so perfectly keyed to make his themes blossom into something far more nuanced than initially appears, and the way in which he weaves genre, theme, mythology and social commentary together creates a purposely complex canvas on which we can view the world through his eyes is something to behold, even if it isn’t easy to watch nor grasp.
What completely sells the film is the sheer dedicated performances by Buckley and Kinnear. Buckley keeps the film rooted in her grounded performance, laden with grief and complex emotions, Buckley is compelling and emotionally charged, never overplaying it, but keeping it familiar and understandable. A film such as this needs to keep one foot in reality, Buckley is that anchor, keeping the film human from a real-world perspective, especially as the film continues on into more abstraction. Kinnear, on the other hand, is pulling off an astounding performance (or set of performances). Far more heightened, yet familiar, Kinnear plays every role he is handed with such a perfect understanding of what makes toxic masculinity so repulsive and unsettling, with each character playing a different degree of how it functions, from basic misogyny to entitlement, to pure creep, and everything in between.
Men is hard to crack after a single viewing, it’s complex and layered in ways that are unexpected and challenging. The film is going to be confronting for a lot of people, Garland’s use of the metaphorical image to present the theme is arresting, disturbing and not exactly the most accessible, however, it leads the way for audiences to find different meanings within the text, multifaceted in so many ways that so much can be found within it, yet the confidence of Garland to construct it this way creates a sense of pure intention and makes the case even stronger. It’s an intricate film that pushes past the simple analysis of toxic masculinity, diving into something far more complicated than is easily read. Men is an intensely intriguing film from a singular artist pushing himself and his art further than he has before. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a deeply fascinating one.
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