You might love it. You might hate it. You might just want to discuss it and flesh it out. That’s the power behind Alex Garland’s Men — not one of the best, but another one of the most downright original movies of the year.
One feeling Men doesn’t inspire is indifference. Its segues from being a tormenting exploration of grief and guilt to a nightmarish hallucination with images likely to be seared into your retina. Like many movie fans, I’m already mentally bracing myself and my stomach for David Cronenberg’s upcoming Crimes of the Future. Men was a sufficient appetizer for that film, which is just two short weeks away.
Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) makes an escape from her London flat to the English countryside. The four hour drive ends at a palatial manor with more space than she feasibly needs. That said, the stately palace and the lush woods nearby are a necessary escape after the terrible tragedy she’s just experienced. Alas, the countryside brings a series of troubling encounters and unexplainable happenstance.
One particular man, in a variety of forms, keeps reappearing. He’s the owner of the holiday house Harper rents. He’s also the vicar, the bartender, the policeman, and more frighteningly, he’s also a bloody, naked stalker and a smug, vulgar teenager. All these men are played by Rory Kinnear, a veteran character actor perhaps most famous for his roles in the Daniel Craig iterations of Bond. The other commonality in these men Harper encounters (besides the facial resemblance) is their consistent ability to disappoint her. She’s insulted, chided with a passive-aggressive speech that deepens her feelings of guilt, or even attacked. Overtime, she battles just as much for her safety as she does her sanity.
Garland retains Harper’s point-of-view the whole time, which becomes an entrapping move for the audience. Her misery becomes ours. Her inability to decipher reality becomes our problem too. It’s a commendable play to insert us in the shoes of a women who is perpetually left feeling lower by every interaction with a different type of man. It’s a lens of empathy not often installed by male filmmakers.
Once more, Garland — who has made deserved waves with his first two features, Ex Machina and Annihilation (both terrific) — choreographs an ominous symphony. Similar to Annihilation, he invites us to play in these beatific woods until the beauty soon breeds fear. By then, he’s locked us into a setting that bleeds with dread. Dialing up the beauty and the disturbing visuals alike is cinematographer Rob Hardy. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow hook us with a nerve-shredding score, heavy on the synths and subversive in how their presence sometimes replaces dialog (mostly screams) as it occurs. Leave the rest to Jake Roberts in the editing department, who keeps things coherent and moving for a tight 100 minutes.
Men works better as a meditation on grief than it does as a social commentary. Its Cronenbergian climax might be the most disgusting yet realized personification of flawed, toxic men birthing equally flawed, toxic men. But amidst this journey, its ideas are never adequately concretized. There’s persistent religious imagery from the very beginning, such as when one of Kinnear’s characters playfully ribs Harper for plucking an apple off his tree. What Garland is trying to say about male-female relations isn’t clear. Maybe the stagnant progress? The Vicar’s rambling diatribe when he’s later attacking Harper isn’t much more clear either.
It’s almost as if Garland had the climax in mind and worked backwards, inadvertently leaving some of his deeper ideas unpolished.
Regardless, Jessie Buckley is sensational, specifically in those troubling flashbacks between her and her abusive ex-husband (Paapa Essiedu). One moment that has her completely losing the ability to speak in her wailing might be her finest on-screen moment I’ve yet to see. It’s even better when you realize the 32-year-old has a lifetime of those in store for years to come.
NOTE: Men is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, and Gayle Rankin. Directed by: Alex Garland.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!