Horror has taken a turn in the last decade or so. What had largely been the domain of masked slashers, ghosts, zombies and other things that go bump in the night started to be invaded by terrors that were less physical and more psychological. Things like grief, guilt, anger and depression became the central themes of movies where the horror is more internal. The protagonist’s pain made manifest by something that makes them confront their past/present/future and the viewer confront ideas about the society they live in. People who prefer straightforward scares over deeply unsettling, ambiguous allegories aren’t really a fan of this breed of so-called “elevated horror (see the big difference between the critical and audience responses to mother!).” Those people should definitely stay away from Men.
Harper, reeling from the death of her husband, decides to take a vacation in a beautiful house in a small town on the English countryside. Everything seems idyllic at first, until she begins to think she is being followed. That is when things start to get very ominous, and very weird, leading to an ending that is sure to be debated for years to come.
Men (95 minutes, without the end credits) is the third writing/directing effort from Alex Garland. His debut was 2014’s Ex Machina, a fantastic sci-fi story that explores what it means to be human. Then came 2018’s Annihilation, a more challenging sci-fi story that dives into the unexplainable by its conclusion. Now comes Men, his least accessible film yet! That is only kind of a joke. It is fascinating, bold, uncompromising, disturbing and thought-provoking. What it isn’t is easy to watch, easy to understand or conclusive. Even one of those things is usually enough to turn off most mainstream audiences, let alone all three.
This is the kind of movie that will undoubtedly mean different things to different people. Grief and guilt are at the forefront of what Harper is struggling with, but Garland wants his audience to think about how those concepts are pushed along by misogyny. During the course of Men, Harper is mentally/physically abused and stalked. She is then blamed for these things happening to her. Exactly what Garland is saying with his final act will be up to the individual viewer, so that is all this review will say about it.
Instead, let us move on to the acting. Harper is played by the incredible Jessie Buckley, fresh off of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for The Lost Daughter. Between that, plus her performances in Wild Rose, I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Men, Buckley is building a heck of a resume. Harper could not have been an easy role to play, yet the way Buckley plays her arc is captivating. She could have just become a symbol, an everywoman, as opposed to a specific character. That does threaten to happen at times, especially as things get progressively more nightmarish; however, Buckley always seems like she knows where she is in the story. It is another impressive performance in a series of them for her.
Men is a difficult movie to consider (or write about without giving anything away). It is brilliant and frustrating. Illuminating and vague. Highly entertaining and tremendously disturbing. Though it is somewhat reminiscent of other movies (the one that came to mind the most while watching it was 1965’s Repulsion), Alex Garland has made something original and confrontational. At the very least, it will lead to some really interesting conversations.
4 out of 5
Jessie Buckley as Harper
Rory Kinnear as Geoffrey
Paapa Essiedu as James
Gayle Rankin as Riley
Written and Directed by Alex Garland