'Ex Machina' and 'Annihilation' filmmaker Alex Garland returns with a #MeToo horror film that's both blatant and piercing.
June 16, 2022
Since popping up over the last decade, the term 'elevated horror' has always been unnecessary. Used to describe The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, Get Out, Hereditary, Us, Midsommar and more, it pointlessly claims that such unsettling flicks have risen above their genre. Each of these movies is excellent. They all boast weight and depth, trade in metaphors with smarts and savvy, and have style to go with their creeps and thrills. But thinking that's new in horror — that pairing unease with topical woes or societal fears is as well — is as misguided as dubbing Michael Myers a hero. With a name that makes its #MeToo-era point plain, Men has been badged 'elevated', too, yet it also does what horror has at its best and worst cases for decades. That the world can be a nightmare for women at the hands of men isn't a fresh observation, and it's long been a scary movie go-to. Still, Men stresses that fact in an inescapably blunt but also unforgettable manner.
The film's setting is an English manor, where Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter) hopes for a solo stint of rest, relaxation and recuperation. Processing a tragedy, shattering memories of which haunt the movie as much as its protagonist, she's seeking an escape and a way to start anew. The initial hint that she won't find bliss comes swiftly and obviously, and with a sledgehammer's subtlety. Arriving at an idyllic-looking British countryside estate, Harper is greeted by an apple tree. She plucks one from the abundant branches, then takes a bite. Soon, she's told by her host Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear, Our Flag Means Death) that it's forbidden fruit. He also says he's joking — but in this garden, a woman will again shoulder a society's blame and burdens.
As overt and blatant as this early exchange is, there's an intensely unnerving look and feel to Men from the outset. Returning to the big screen after excellent sci-fi TV series Devs, writer/director Alex Garland isn't a stranger to visually stunning, deeply disquieting films that ponder big ideas; see: the complex, eerie and sublime Ex Machina, plus the similarly intricate and intriguing Annihilation. Oscar Isaac doesn't turn up this time, let alone dance. Buckley and Kinnear do turn in mesmerising and magnificent powerhouse performances amid the perturbing mood and spectacular imagery. Gender expectations also get probed and challenged, as do genres. And, things get strange and insidious after Harper tries to lap up her bucolic surroundings.
Those blood-red walls sported by Harper's atmospheric centuries-old home-away-from-home? That's another glaring warning. Also discomforting: the jump-scare glitch when she video chats with her best friend Riley (Gayle Rankin, GLOW), after being told by Geoffrey — who is polite but never direct, perfectly satirising both stiff-upper-lip Britishness and the fine line between being courteous and patronising — that reception isn't the best. And, when Harper ventures out of the house, she discovers scenic treasures alongside hardly hospitable locals. She's a woman plagued by troubles that don't begin as her own, and she's forced to devote everything she has to moving past them and surviving. That Harper is played with such instinctive and physical feeling with Buckley, who just keeps going from strength to strength thanks to Beast, Wild Rose, Chernobyl, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Fargo and her Oscar-nominated efforts in The Lost Daughter, is one of Men's biggest assets.
First, there's the naked man who follows Harper through the wilderness, after she wanders through a cavernous tunnel with ethereal acoustics that's a delight one moment and boarded up the next. Then, more and more townsfolk spark alarm. There's the cop who barely believes Harper's stalker story, dismissively so. There's the teen who asks curious questions, demands attention and gets abusive when he isn't indulged. Also, there's the vicar who enquires about Harper's woes, then apportions responsibility her way for her struggles with husband James (Paapa Essiedu, I May Destroy You), while also putting his hand on her knee. The town pub's patrons are wary of her encroachment on their turf, while Geoffrey keeps making his presence known in his civil but passive-aggressive fashion. And, these men — yes, they're all men — share something beyond an unpleasant, off-putting and entitled attitude. Kinnear is also fantastic in Men because he's all men (including in scenes that make it clear that Garland saw his exceptional efforts as Frankenstein's monster in Penny Dreadful).
Toxic masculinity deserves to be torn down repeatedly, and nuance needn't be part of that dismantling. The misogyny women can face openly and daily, and the way that simply existing can bring threats in the most ordinary spaces, also demands calling out loudly and strongly. Men does this. It ponders its key idea in different ways, too, including within religion and marriage. It shows how views can fester from adolescence, and within social and supposedly comforting confines. It demonstrates that just being can be fraught with distress for women, taking that reality to surreal, violent and fleshy extremes that'd equally do David Lynch and David Cronenberg proud. Also, it toys with how women are victimised in horror cinema. Garland's take on the topic is vivid and chilling — and as evocative as his past releases, plus his stellar screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine — but Men also dives about as deep as noting that its namesake can be the worst, everyone knows it, and movies and life prey upon it.
Still, as a piece of immersive cinema, Men is entrancing. It might be too kind to think its thematic bludgeoning is completely on purpose, but feeling like you're trapped in the same hell as Harper — in the film's present day, and in her orange-hued, positively apocalyptic, just-as-disturbing memories — is by design. Garland's work is that meticulous and sensory, and adept at conjuring up gut- and heart-wrenching reactions. It has been since he started out as the author behind The Beach, in fact. Here, he's aided by the intricate splendour, leafy and shadowy alike, lensed by his now usual cinematographer Rob Hardy (Mission: Impossible — Fallout), as well as the ominousness echoing in the choral-heavy score by fellow regular collaborators Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (Archive 81). That all elevates the movie, although not because it's a higher form of horror, which it isn't. Men is as glaringly direct, primal and surface-level as a bar pickup line, and says nothing new, but its visceral and unshakeable menace still digs in hard, fast, tight and piercingly.