Following Ex Machina and Annihilation, writer and director Alex Garland returns to the green, green pastures of home with a new chiller on just how toxic masculinity can be. Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a woman in need of a retreat following the tragic end of her relationship with James (Paapa Essiedu).
Harper drives four hours out of London – which makes it pretty much the rest of England – to a small village where she is to rent a bucolic mansion for a week where she is going to grieve and begin hopefully to recover. Here she meets Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), her host who has apparently stepped out of a The League of Gentlemen episode. He’s goofy, bumptious, and exudes a nice-but-dim air and yet there’s something off-putting. Like he hasn’t quite made it out of Uncanny Valley, even though he is presumably a human being.
The house seems perfect: English gothic cozy with large windows – “Those are the kinds of windows faces peer in from,” to quote Withnail and I. A bunch of nice walks to hand and a pub in staggering distance makes this perfect for Harper. Cinematographer Rob Hardy has gone full “demi-paradise, this sceptered isle”, making the English countryside look vibrantly lushly green. Full of fruitfulness, tall skies that change in an instant and deep dark woods. It is one of these woods where Harper gets lost and has to flee a man who chases her. He later shows up later, naked and standing peering into those large windows mentioned above.
It soon becomes apparent that everyone in the village is a man and what’s more they’re all played by Rory Kinnear, something which Harper never acknowledges. This is her nightmare and she understands the rules to some extent. Men are all the same, after all. The vicar who offers her comfort, ends up blaming her for her husband’s death, despite his domestic violence and narcissism. He also applies lip balm with the exact creepiness the words “vicar + lip + balm” deserve. A little boy in a Marilyn Monroe-as-sex-doll mask wants to play hide and seek and is immediately hostile when he’s not immediately satisfied. Events turn evermore frightening as mobile signals fail and the security lights flash on and off at inopportune moments.
In some ways, Men represents a brilliant technical exercise in horror. It creates an offbeat situation with a lurking sense of dread inhabited by a sympathetic and real character, played wonderfully by Buckley. Her name Harper suggests the misogynistic mythology of the harpy, the monstrous female. She establishes herself as a strong independent woman in the midst of traumatic events. Kinnear has the much flashier roles, allowing him to show off a remarkable range while maintaining a level of credibility.
For all its technical accomplishments – and there are some special effects which will leave you wincing – what is Garland actually saying? Is this misandry platformed as feminism? Is there a coherent point beyond “Ugh, men!”? Which is actually a valid point, let’s face it. Similar to Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Men suggests an allegorical meaning might lie somewhere in the twigs and under the skin.
At its heart there is a grisly moment of domestic abuse which is filmed in such an orange-red light as to seem the most stylistically unreal moment. As if this woman’s reality is such a nightmare, that her actual nightmares might be a refuge of sorts. One where she can at least strike back at an unambiguous force that moves against her. Men is a hallucinatory provocative work which will provoke laughs and yelps and not a little self-reckoning.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty