While Men may only be the third feature film fully under Alex Garland’s belt, his reputation and track record to those who aren’t in the know should be more than enough. Beyond Ex Machina and Annihilation, both modern sci-fi masterpieces in their own right, Garland has written a handful of works over the past decades spanning novels, incredibly popular films, a television show, and even had a hand in the world of video games. Garland’s reach and method of delivery extends far and wide when a story grips him, and it’s clear that whatever medium best suits his story will not stop him from relaying his point to an audience. While his methods are all radically different from one another, the one common thread across Garland’s work is simple, even if writing it out may seem incredibly broad. No matter what, Garland is most concerned with humanity. Whether it’s the effect humanity has on the world (Annihilation) or how we as people affect each other on a global scale (28 Days Later), being human is a deeply complex subject that is ripe for discussion with an often-rotten core barely hiding beneath the surface. And with Men, Garland couldn’t be any more clear about just how easily a rotten apple could spoil the bunch.
As Jessie Buckley’s Harper retreats to the countryside while coming to grips with devastating personal matters, she finds that escaping into peace and quiet can sometimes lead to chaos. When left to our own devices in the wake of grief, the mind can begin to wander… and what is found on the quest for serenity may be frightening. Yet it is a journey that must be taken nevertheless. Unfortunately, Garland matter-of-factly presents a roadblock that will unfortunately resonate with far too many audience members. While the name of the film itself may have been joked about extensively leading up to the release, Garland uses Men as a microcosm of the world beyond Harper’s retreat, one that is plagued by toxic masculinity. In 100 minutes, Garland is able to strip down a horror film to its absolute bare staples and let the imagination run wild from there. Three actors, one isolated house, visceral imagery and a haunting sound design will not only have audiences jumping out of their seats, but also ingrain a lingering fear and unease on the journey home.
While discussing the film and his intent in making it, Garland stated, “What I wanted to do with it is to make a film that people can project onto as much as possible, where the viewer is a participant in the narrative”. At many points, Men is a straight-forward film with much to pull from the surface. Where its brilliance lies however, is within its subtlety and nuance. With ease, Garland is able to project the viewer into the film itself through the camera lens, both as a terrified onlooker or sometimes as the stalking villain in the woods. Roaming through greenery or paying homage to one of Stanley Kubrick’s many infamous camera angles in The Shining, the audience is ever present in Harper’s dream (read as nightmare) getaway. As Harper seemingly begins to lose a grip on reality and the men around her act more and more irrational and frightening, what may have started as a psychological/supernatural thriller reveals its real-world horror: the unnerving fear that men can bring to any given situation.
Whether having a drink at the local pub or partaking in a reflective moment alone in church, the titular men of this film loom throughout, whether in the shadows, hiding behind a mask, or even directly in the foreground. In an outstanding array of performances from Rory Kinnear, there’s an alarming contrast to how each persona he takes on views the world, and Harper, around him. Nothing short of a miracle, Kinnear is able to pull off a villainous aura that works within not just the horror of the film, but also goes far beyond the text into the terror of reality. It’s a role that the film is hinged upon, and he knocks it out of the park. Yet it's Buckley who grounds the film in the actuality that is needed to relay the subtext. Buckley is a true force of nature in this film. Her contemplative mannerisms are underscored with layers of fear, pain, weariness, grief and above all, a commitment to healing. From screaming matches that feel truly raw to childlike wonder at discovering an echo, Buckley can switch emotions at the drop of a hat. With this combination of lead performances, Men is able to expertly toy with the audience. Are people chuckling because this is being played for comedic effect, or is this the laughter of an audience deeply unsettled with the imagery and situations being presented that is unsure how to respond out of terror? This being a film from Garland, chances are it’s the latter.
When the film begins leaning into full body horror, the cyclical nature of toxic ideals and its root in upbringing is apparent. Generation after generation, men have been brought up in a culture that has not only failed to acknowledge their misdeeds, but rewarded them for them. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, men have been allowed to dominate every facet of life of women around them. With Men, Garland’s approach to Harper’s relief is one of an attempt at breaking the cycle. And while the echoes of Harper’s countryside getaway become louder and louder as the film progresses, the hope remains that her internal haunting will cease and make way for catharsis. Yet while Harper may have solved her immediate problem, the systemic aggressions present are an ongoing issue that can only be stopped through challenging conversations.
A24 will release Men in theaters on May 19th, 2022.