Writer/director Alex Garland has received considerable praise during his career, as he’s got a real talent for making his audience question what’s going on right in front of them, while also making sure to never shy away from pure viscera. Not for shock value, mind you, but because it’s germane to the story he’s telling. His first directorial feature, Ex Machina, had some brilliant ideas at play, earning him an Oscar nomination. It was a bit too simplistic for my tastes, but I wholeheartedly recognize the quality in its spectacle. He followed that up with Annihilation, which had some great visuals, but sank under the weight of its own imagined profundity and ultimately wound up as a standard-issue sci-fi horror film that had its moments, but ultimately went nowhere.
With his third feature, Men, I think his potential has finally been fully realized. The themes and plot can be a bit heavy handed at times, but it’s in service of a larger idea that’s executed quite brilliantly. It’s a searing indictment of toxic masculinity, filled to the brim with fantastic and disturbing horror imagery that plays less like revenge fantasy or wish fulfillment than it does nightmare fuel on the most intimate of levels.
The film opens with the first of many messed up scenes, as Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) drives to the English countryside while flashing back to the moment where her estranged husband, James (Paapa Essiedu from I May Destroy You) fell to his death in front of her balcony window, apparently a suicide. Harper arrives in the village of Caston, pulling in to a manor estate that she’s renting for the next two weeks as a means of self-care and healing. There she meets the owner, Geoffrey, played by Rory Kinnear, and we’re already off and running with the eerie mood-setting. Geoffrey watches her from a window as she takes an apple from a tree and eats it, then playfully scolds her as a joke, a reference to Original Sin. He then shows her around the house, acting extra nice and faux-chivalrous, leaving the impression that he’s an okay fellow, but something is just a bit… off.
Things only get worse for Harper as she explores the village. She’s stalked by a naked man, gets called a bitch by a young boy, and even is gaslit by the local vicar who blames her for her husband’s death. Her only solace is in her sister, Riley (Gayle Rankin from GLOW), who spends the bulk of the film accessible solely by phone, which frequently cuts out. Garland has a LOT of fun with flickering lights and power outages, using one of horror’s most tried and true tropes like a wicked toy.
Now, the crux of the terror here is that all those men I just described are played by Kinnear in a multi-role turn for the ages. At first it reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s animated opus, Anomalisa, where nearly every person that David Thewlis’ character encounters is voiced by Tom Noonan. But whereas in that movie Noonan’s myriad roles were meant as a literal example of the depressingly anodyne nature of Thewlis’ life, here Kinnear plays different examples of the worst my gender has to offer. Geoffrey is the self-declared “nice guy” who just comes off as creepy, a wry smile belying a hint of cruelty. The boy Sam is every entitled guy who projects his anger onto a woman when they don’t get their way. The vicar is an obvious reference to the Church, which by design has shunted women into subservient roles and divided them into the binary of being either virgins or whores, as well as the rapacious nature of those who wield abusive power based on the perception of their being virtuous in public. A policeman represents a failed system seemingly made more for their own convenience rather than to protect and serve. The nude stalker, who mutilates his body with plants and blows dandelion puffs everywhere, is a symbol of those who feel it is their right to procreate without consequence, and later a very graphic demonstration of the self-perpetuating cycle of toxicity.
All of these archetypes – and the fact that Kinnear plays them all – serve the greater metaphor that deep down, all men are the same. This is obviously untrue and a very broad brush approach, but the execution is downright genius, and it can’t be ignored that for many women, experience has led them to perceive us in this unforgiving light. It’s an extreme example that begs us to treat women with more understanding and empathy, which is crucially important for us to function as a society, even if it is laid on pretty thick. Because yes, a lot of men have been guilty of these flaws at one time to another, and for some it’s ingrained into their identity. If you think it doesn’t happen, you’re either not paying attention, you’re just an idiot, or you’re actively committing these sins, and you’re part of the problem. So yeah, the singular dimension of each of Kinnear’s parts can seem obvious and preachy in a vacuum, but there is an essential utility to the combination of personalities he aggressively displays. It does smack you across the face at times, and I wish there was some nuance to it, but I get the creative choice.
Speaking of that execution, for many parts of the movie I was absolutely floored. Jessie Buckley has been my absolute favorite actress for a few years now, and she only gets better with each role. The beauty of her performance is in her assertiveness. She is a living counterpoint to every stereotype that men can put in their heads about what women are really like. She refuses to give up any of her agency, she’s noticeably uncomfortable when someone goes out of their way to do favors for her, and she’s very matter-of-fact about everything she does. At no point is she screaming that no one believes her or any number of other tired clichés about “hysterical” behavior, but she’s also not deadpan. She has a wide range of emotional responses, even in the most irrational and horrifying of moments, but Buckley keeps everything grounded, almost as if she’s primed not to give the audience any excuse to dismiss her. Combine that with the absolute insane spectrum that Kinnear has to display, and the two form an unsettling but captivating pair.
And despite my less than stellar reception to his previous works, Alex Garland is a master of using visuals and sound to set atmosphere. There are several scenes that seem heavily inspired by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, where Buckley is kept in center of the frame against gorgeous backdrops. The color palette is absolutely eye-popping (and this is coming from someone who’s partially colorblind), particularly in an early scene where Harper comes upon a tunnel in a very green wood. What begins as an almost silent scene becomes enhanced by Buckley conducting a vocal orchestra of echoes as she sings through the tunnel, the sounds blending into each other like a chorus until it literally becomes part of the ambient score, building tension as sound waves bounce off the walls and droplets of water create ripples in the puddles on the ground. This is but the best example of some really clever camera and sound work that makes excellent use of reds and yellows, precisely edits in the foley art, and cheekily reveals the lingering threats to Harper’s life through graceful movement rather than cheap jump scares (I only counted one, so Jump Fail does not come into play).
Then there’s the final act, or more accurately, the final half. I’ve seen some fucked up imagery in my life, but you’d be hard pressed to come up with a climax so consistently disturbing. I was briefly reminded of one of Garland’s contemporaries, Ari Aster, but even he doesn’t go as far as Garland does here for such a long stretch of time. In a near-psychedelic confrontation of demons that more than blurs the lines of reality, the film’s denouement is chock full of gore that had me squirming in my chair, mouthing “fucking JESUS!” to myself over and over. And yet, it never once felt gratuitous. When you can give me something that makes me feel that enjoyably uncomfortable, you know you’ve accomplished something.
The story does reach a bit too far, even though I understand why, and there are a few too many moments of ambiguity to put the film at the absolute top of my list for this year so far, but that’s a very high bar to clear at this point. Men is a highly ambitious lesson in modern gender bias led by two absolutely stellar performances, aided by production values and horror effects (the makeup ALONE would put this into the upper echelons of 2022 cinema) from Alex Garland at what looks to be his first true peak. It’s not for the squeamish, and you will be whispering “what the fuck” several times, but my God is it worth it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What types of horror films do you enjoy most? Seriously, how great is Jessie Buckley? Let me know!