With a title like “Men,” it’s exactly what you expect and yet nothing at all. The latest from A24, a brand that has become synonymous with modern arthouse horror, Men aims to be memorable at all costs but bites off more than it can chew in the process. At the helm of this bold project is writer-director Alex Garland, best known for his science fiction entries Ex Machina and Annihilation. With such a stellar repertoire, every new picture of his is admittedly faced with high expectations, whether that be fair or not. Garland takes a more surrealist approach in tackling gender stereotypes here, only relying on traditional scare tactics on a handful of occasions. It’s hard to describe what exactly is happening and according to Garland, it’s one of those “it’s up to the viewer to decide” scenarios. One thing is for certain, the third act will be a conversational piece.
Off in the gorgeous English countryside lies a manor fit for a relaxing getaway. Harper (powerhouse Jessie Buckley) is keen to get out of London following the loss of her husband (Paapa Essiedu). What was meant to be a breath of fresh air slowly turns into relentless terror – something all too familiar for the horror genre. A woman all alone in this big manor with only one friend (Gayle Rankin) that she talks to via Facetime. Then we have the unironic men who reside in the town. Rory Kinnear expertly plays all of these shady masculine figures. Starting with manor owner Geoffrey, he seems super hospitable until he slightly jabs at Harper’s character. You quickly get a sense of where this is going as each new male enters the fold, and so on.
Throughout Harper’s stay, when she’s not haunted by what transpired with her late husband, her moments of peace are repeatedly interrupted by these men who share Kinnear’s face. Is this all in Harper’s head? Are all the men the same or metaphorically come off looking the same when they’re disrespectful? Another one of the men she encounters is a rude vicar outside of a church. Harper is clearly struggling with grief and the words of advice he shares are more along the lines of victim-blaming. As she struggles to hold her tongue around these on-the-nose interactions, Buckley is able to nail the frustration and suffocation that most women feel in these situations. Her struggle and perseverance are meant to represent the universal female experience, yet she as a character never gets fully fleshed out. We barely know anything about her aside from the widow who gets constantly harassed. Even if this choice is as intentional as Garland’s blunt framing of toxic masculinity, it still leaves you wanting more given Buckley’s compelling performance.
Likewise, it’s an impressive feat to see Kinnear transform into each iteration of man. He goes from judgemental vicar to nonchalant policeman to brutal teen all but seamlessly. The visual effects team tries their best to de-age Kinnear’s face for that last one, although it’s more distracting and uncanny than effective. There’s a lot of time spent to make sure each personality leaves an impression by, of course, harping on Harper. These archetypes that Kinnear plays are exactly just that as well. They embody both the worst and best of what humans have to offer emotionally. Kindness, lust, protection, deceit, and greed to name a few. What do they want with Harper and why don’t they just leave her alone? This is where Men will start to test your patience.
As the film trudges on, you want to root for Harper after all of the adversities she’s faced. Before long, everything takes a weird turn back to the manor. Up until that point, the events that occur are mysterious and intriguing. Harper explores the town, has some bad interactions, and then just takes time to dwell on them at the manor. Even her friend Riley tries to encourage her to leave or to have her come stay with her. There’s also a sinister underbelly to it all with a lot of jump cuts to religious iconography, a Green Man, dead animals, and an apple tree representing the forbidden fruit in the manor’s garden. Thanks to Garland’s go-to cinematographer Rob Hardy, these shots each look like a work of art. Men can be just as visually provocative and stunning as Garland’s previous esteemed works, however, the images on-screen leave even more questions as to their purpose in the narrative. It’s a film meant to sit with you for a while rather than explain itself all at once, and after dwelling on it long enough, you’ll probably end up appreciating it more for its aspirations as opposed to actually loving it.
The third act plays out quite differently from the rest and will very likely be the final nail in the coffin for many. A man from the nearby pub follows Harper back to the manor in a whole home invasion-type scenario. In this final confrontation with Harper, the men start to morph and it all turns into grotesque body horror, without giving away too much. As Harper watches it unfold before her very eyes with nowhere to run, you’ll feel that exact same fear sinking in. Garland takes his deepest dive into the world of surrealism, conjuring up a monstrous sight to behold. And yet, this whole sequence is almost too shocking when compared to the rest of his contemplative film. You can’t help but think that these antics either came too late or don’t belong here at all.
Men tries to tackle so many themes it’s hard to tell which ones it sticks the landing with if any. There’s toxic masculinity and misogyny, but there’s not much resolution felt after seeing a woman get berated for an hour and forty minutes. The biblical stuff that accounts for the strange doesn’t need to be spelled out, however, it doesn’t really point you anywhere in the end either. At the root of it all is love, the love that Harper couldn’t satisfy with her late husband and the gratification that these other men desire from her. Garland tries to say a lot with little meaning behind all the shock value and surface-level messaging. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to cite a Lynchian influence in his method of madness. Though as seen with David Lynch and other surrealist filmmakers, “leaving it up to the viewer to decide” only works if you layout enough of a thematic trail to follow. With a distributor like A24 at its back, Men could’ve been a strong entry into surrealist horror. Take it or leave it, it’s sure to stick with you in some ways.