Men is the latest film from director Alex Garland, known for his tantalizing and disturbing ventures in the sci-fi genre with films like Ex Machina and Annihilation. It’s the latest installment of distributor A24’s collection of horror films produced with arthouse flair and introspections into grief and trauma. This time around, a woman named Harper goes to stay in an English country estate after the apparent suicide of her husband. While staying there she begins to have odd interactions with the men in the town, from the house’s owner, to the police, to a creepy naked guy that follows her out of the woods. Things begin to grow increasingly surreal, turning a relaxing getaway into a full blown nightmare.
Garland is known for his thought provoking themes involving much of humanity’s modern fears, from the rise of artificial intelligence and our own inevitable self-destruction. His films always seem to put women in particular at the forefront of these issues, showing that some issues and worries can be universal and transcend genders. However, with his newest film Men, it cannot be ignored that gender itself is on the chopping block. The film twists many prevalent issues women face directly from men into a terrifying story of downplaying, gaslighting and general discomfort. A film with such subject matter is sure to ruffle some feathers, especially those that believe this to be a “yes, all men” story. I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case for this film, however I do have some issues with its particular approach to male culture.
First let’s talk about the two main performances from Jesse Buckley and Rory Kinnear. Buckley first came under my radar with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and since then I’ve actively looked forward to every new performance of hers. As the estranged widow Harper, Buckley is the female experience rolled into a tragic but competent character. She’s essentially the looking glass for the viewer to experience the subtle and not-so-subtle ways women are treated and downplayed in modern culture. The film doesn’t make her completely helpless to the fact, but you do begin to realize that even though she’s the protagonist of the story, she’s not the actual focus. Much like her character in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Buckley is more of a conduit used as a target for issues centering around the male gender. At least this time around her character actually has a name.
Then we have Rory Kinnear, who plays almost every single man we see in the film, from estate owner Geoffrey to the police chief, to a rude boy in a woman mask to that creepy naked guy that covers himself with leaves. Kinnear does a fantastic job portraying all these different characters, yet he’s purposefully not a chameleon. It’s very apparent his portrayal of all these male characters is a deliberate attempt to show the similarities between how men consciously and subconsciously interact with women. Geoffrey is respectful and kind, but there’s also an underlying lack of awareness when it comes to how he speaks to Harper about her husband and her past. The police officer on the other hand shows a noticeable lack of care and urgency to Harper’s worry about the naked man that’s been stalking her. The boy asks to play hide-and-seek with Harper, and when she refuses, he resorts to calling her derogatory names. These are all small personifications of the way many men think and act towards women, and Kinnear approaches these encapsulations with both realism and surrealism.
This is a horror film that is hinged on its atmosphere rather than more conventional tactics. There’s always a sense of dread hanging over the film even when nothing is happening, amplified due in part to suggestive camerawork and a hauntingly gothic score. The film is a bit of a slow burn for sure, but it’s not without its disturbing imagery, far beyond the full frontal male nudity you’ll see quite a lot. By the time the film gets to its last 20 minutes, the film goes off the rails in the best, most disgusting way possible. Grotesque bodily manipulation is heavy, creating some of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve seen this year. All I’m gonna say is…you better get comfortable with the act of childbirth very quickly. These last minutes are definitely going to divide audiences through both their imagery and their intention, but I found it to be an interesting personification of how certain cultural norms are passed from one generation to another.
Now let’s talk about what this film is hoping to accomplish, because I do have some concerns over how the general idea of “men” is presented, and not in a “well, not all men” kind of way. My problems mainly come from the fact that Garland doesn’t really seem to offer any new or insightful commentary on the subject of how men can treat women. He showcases all the different ways it can happen, but he doesn’t exactly delve into the why as much as I was expecting. Truthfully you can’t always give people who actively work to disenfranchise women too many excuses, but it’s clear that many of these issues come from a place beyond simple maliciousness. There’s societal and generational factors that play a huge part here, and while Garland seems to acknowledge these factors’ roles in why many men are the way they are, he doesn’t exactly go deeper into dissecting these elements any further than surface level acknowledgement. Additionally, when a film makes a common issue like this the forefront of its themes, it helps to at least offer some sort of nudge towards a resolution of said issue, and there really isn’t much of one here. True, much of it does come down to men themselves to make these changes, as a male director, Garland could have taken a much clearer stance on what needs to happen to resolve these societal issues. It’s one thing to hold a mirror up to society, but this is a reflection that most of the world is aware of, and I can’t say that the way the film presents itself is really going to incite much change.
I’ve always found Garland to be a pretty consistent writer and director, and Men is by no means a complete misstep .It does give insight into societal issues through horrifying images and scenarios, and the easy-to-digest message does make this much more approachable than say Annihilation. The divisiveness this film is sure to cause will surely, or should I say hopefully, spark meaningful conversation between the many differing sides. I enjoyed myself here even if I think this is perhaps the weakest of Garland’s directorial work, yet I certainly recommend fans of horror and the A24 aesthetic check this out for an incredibly weird and disgusting time.
You can’t have an allegorical film about men and women without making references to Adam and Eve right? Well Men is no different, with apples being a common use of symbolism throughout the film, proving that women will just get blamed for whatever. Yet seeing apples paired alongside the cozy English countryside got me hankering for a fruitful, fall-style drink. That’s where the Forbidden Fruit comes in, taking the refreshingness of apples and giving it a bit of a bite thanks to some added ginger, and sweetened with a bit of maple syrup. It’s a lovely drink with a bit of complexity, and after seeing a film with a climax like Men, some alcohol will certainly do the mind good.
- 2oz applejack
- 1/2oz maple syrup
- 1/2oz creme de cassis
- 3 dashes angostura bitters
- 1.5oz spiced apple cider
- 1.5oz ginger beer
- Garnish: Orange peel
- Stir ingredients together with ice.
- Strain into chilled coup glass.
- Garnish with orange peel.