When it was announced that Alex Garland would be writing and directing a new film, a horror film that would reunite him with A24, it became even more tantalizing. As the details slowly started to trickle out, it became apparent that Garland was definitely making something unique. What we get is definitely that, a wholly original and horrific vision.
MEN is a parable, a cautionary tale, and at times a narrative story. Garland is a master filmmaker, specializing in mood and dread. His previous films Annihilation and Ex Machina are glowing showcases of a director who is finely attuned to his strengths. Garland knows how to make striking images from scary scream bears to dancing robots, there are moments in his films that will forever stick with you. With Men he turns that up to eleven, there are images here that are not for the faint of heart, including a sequence towards the end that I’m still processing these days later.
To talk about MEN would be to talk about the current climate, specifically toward the female experience in a male-dominated world. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements firmly in the zeitgeist and the abhorrent behavior that had been ignored for far too long, there was no doubt it would seep into the films we watch. Recent films like Bombshell approach the subject head-on, while others like 2020’s The Invisible Man broach themes of gaslighting and victim shaming, but there hasn’t been one to show it quite like this.
Focusing on a recently widowed Harper, played magnificently by Jessie Buckley, she takes a much-needed holiday to the small village of Coston to clear her head of the past trauma and try to find inner peace. After arriving at the rental house she is greeted by the overly friendly owner Geoffrey, played to perfection by Rory Kinnear, after settling in she explores the nearby woods and things take off from there. Garland’s prowess at matching beautiful settings with deeply unsettling moments is unparalleled, while there isn’t anything too malicious on screen, there is an overall sense of dread and unease that permeates the screen. Once it becomes apparent that this town she has come to as a haven is slowly becoming her private hell, all thanks to men. The men of the town manifest in different ways, whether it’s an overly handsy Vicar, sexist remarks, or blatant sexual aggression. Each manifestation is played by Rory Kinnear whose character work here is an absolute clinic. What’s better is that Jessie Buckley keeps up pound for pound. At times, the over the top nature of the allegorical parts of the story can be a bit on the nose, Harper is stalked by a fully nude man for the better half of the film, and while it’s certainly effective, the heavy-handedness of it all feels a bit over-stuffed. Your mileage may vary, but the effectiveness is undeniable.
What sets the film apart, aside from the excellent direction, is its willingness to completely surrender to the reality of the world, or lack thereof. What starts out as a straightforward narrative quickly becomes a hallucinatory fever dream, full of nightmarish imagery and an absolutely bonkers ending that will be talked about for years to come. Garland’s usual team of Cinematographer Rob Hardy and Composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury really bring his vision to life.
Harper’s story starts as a woman in an obviously toxic relationship and ends with her in a literal fight against the patriarchy, in between are religious and pagan imagery to further drive home that women have been dealing with this nonsense since the dawn of time.
The role men have in the lives of women everywhere is examined from the female perspective, again, your mileage may vary since this is written and directed by a man, but it brings these roles into question and the conversations that will hopefully happen as a result. What these questions are and how they are answered will depend on the viewer and how they take it in. No doubt this will be divisive and cause outrage, but it’s better for it.
4 out of 5