'Men' is One Blunt and Gut-Churning Metaphor - Knotfest

‘Men’ is One Blunt and Gut-Churning Metaphor

Posted by Nicolás Delgadillo in Culture on May 20, 2022

The writer and director of Ex Machina and Annihilation goes from sci-fi to horror with this gory tale

Alex Garland burst onto the scene with his feature directing debut Ex Machina in 2014, a modern sci-fi masterpiece that tackled ideas of sentience and creation. Four years later, he followed it up with Annihilation, a modern sci-fi near-masterpiece that dealt with grief and self-destruction. Another four years have passed and audiences are being treated to a new Garland film once again, only this time the filmmaker has pivoted to a different genre: Full on, bloody, gruesome horror. 

Of course, those familiar with Garland’s work know that thrills and chills are always present in his stories. Much of Ex Machina feels like it’s on a knife-edge with the tension it wrings out, and who could possibly forget the nightmare that was the bear in Annihilation? Garland is also responsible for writing 28 Days Later, the game changing zombie movie that helped bring about a revival of the subgenre. Horror is very much in his wheelhouse.

Jessie Buckely stars as Harper in ‘Men’
Courtesy of A24

The film is called Men, a bit of purposeful cheek whose trailer always elicited some fun reactions whenever its title was revealed. Another original story by Garland, the film follows a woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) as she arrives at an idyllic and breathtakingly beautiful house in the English countryside. The area is awash with gorgeous fields of green and a luscious forest that surrounds the home. It’s the perfect place to getaway. For Harper, it’s also where she’s chosen to try and heal.

She’s here in the wake of a devastatingly traumatic incident; the death of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), which she was forced to witness. Garland wisely delivers the details surrounding the incident and the relationship between Harper and James in scattered flashbacks that steadily fill us in as the film progresses. Even better, these flashbacks are given through Harper’s painful recollections as she attempts to enjoy her holiday, an easy but crucial way to tie the needed exposition to our main character’s current emotional and mental state.

Harper’s desire to be alone in her picturesque place of self-reflection is soon violated by the presence of strange men that appear to be from the nearby village. These range from the bizarre and unpleasant (like a naked man that appears as Harper attempts to take in the view of an open field) to the outright terrifying (as Harper explores a large dark tunnel, a man appears at the opening and charges at her) to smaller aggressions (a cop that refuses to take her seriously, a young boy that calls her a bitch for not playing a game with him). Soon enough, her getaway turns into a nightmare as the hostilities against her quickly ramp up in intensity, to put things mildly.

Rory Kinnear stars as Geoffrey in ‘Men’
Courtesy of A24

All of the men in the film are played by Rory Kinnear (you may know him from the Bond franchise or as the man who did something unspeakable to a pig in the very first episode of Black Mirror). It’s a spectacular performance from the English actor, who is tasked not just with creating several distinctly different characters but using each one to embody the film’s overt portrayals of male aggressions big and small. Kinnear more than delivers, imbuing subtle malice into every individual role, even the seemingly friendly house renter Geoffrey, whose toothy grin never quite seems as warm or as trustworthy as it should. 

Buckley is equally spellbinding in her performance, conjuring up intense emotional anguish, moments of unhindered peace and joy, and righteous fury throughout Harper’s journey. The film is a clear take on the repugnant ways that women are forced to constantly live in a world under the gaze and rules of men, but as Men appears to be written, directed, produced, shot, edited, and scored entirely by men, Buckley is the sole source of genuine authenticity for the female perspective that the story demands (Gayle Rankin plays Harper’s sister Riley but is limited to brief appearances over Facetime). Buckley is up for the challenge and miraculously outshines her co-star along the way, someone with the arguably juicier role.

Speaking of juice, your feelings towards Men will largely depend on what you make of the film’s final act. Fans of Garland’s previous films will find the same kind of masterful tension and suspense prevalent throughout most of this latest project. Likewise, cinematographer Rob Hardy brings his best to this third collaboration with Garland. Harper’s walks through the woods are mesmerizing and off putting at the same time, colors contrast brilliantly from scene to scene, and slight tilts or precise movements of the camera assist in steadily easing the film into its desired atmosphere of paranoia.

A masked young man played by Rory Kinnear in ‘Men’
Courtesy of A24

The film’s disquieting setup and obvious but effective depictions of its themes are largely forgotten by the time the climax gets rolling. As Men goes full-tilt into grotesque body horror and impressively unsavory imagery, it loses much of what was so initially engaging about it. Its metaphors become a bit too blunt, its shock value dissipates due to relentless overexposure, and the film’s ending (while satisfying and functional enough) ends on a note that’s both predictable and a little unremarkable. 

Still, perhaps Men’s crude and gory finale is ultimately the point. Garland’s films often require some time to mull over and this one in particular will likely spark endless debate over its ideas and the meaning of its bloodsoaked ending. To its credit, gorehounds will adore the unhinged lengths that the film goes to. To put it this way, the horror effects on display here are repulsively impressive. Yes, perhaps that overindulgence of nastiness and abandoning of subtlety is the point of a story about the inescapable, gross prevalence of the terrors of men.

‘Men’ is now playing in theaters.

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