Updated: May 22, 2022
The title of Alex Garland's third feature film, Men, seems like clickbait. One can imagine, even from the cryptic trailer, that the film is going to "say something." And that could easily come off like some art-class dude who thinks he is woke. It is to Garland's credit here that Men is a deliciously perverse slice of horror film that plays with ideas of the ways in which men hurt women but it never comes off as a lesson. Instead, the film is full of well-observed moments, good performances and some truly shocking imagery.
Garland works on vibes over straightforward storytelling. His works are mood pieces and thus have a tendency to leave some viewers scratching their heads. Men is no different and there will be plenty of people leaving the theater asking themselves "What did I just see?" Try not to overthink it. The story is rather simple, just told in a unique way.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) is traveling to a pastoral country house she rented as the film opens. We learn via flashbacks that she is going there to recover after a traumatic experience. After an intense fight and threats of divorce, she witnesses her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) fall to his death from above their apartment. Shot in super-slow motion, we see their eyes connect as he falls. Her face is of pure terror, his is harder to pin down. Harper is wrestling with what happened and if James intended to kill himself. The flashback scenes continue to complicate our perception of what happened. We learn that James threatened to kill himself if she left him.
The large estate Harper inhabits will recall many horror films in which someone is grieving in a large house. Garland sprinkles in Biblical allusions throughout the film, most strikingly as Harper arrives to the manner and eats an apple from a tree in the yard. The caretaker (Rory Kinnear, in one of many roles) tells her the fruit is forbidden.
One of the central concepts of the film is to have Kinnear play all the men in the small rural town that surrounds the estate. This strong visual cue gives you everything you need to know about what Men has on its mind. As Harper encounters more men in the town, each crosses a line. At first, it is just the caretaker who assumes Harper should be traveling with her hubby. Later it is an unwelcomed touch. After that, things turn more aggressive as Harper is stalked by a naked man.
Garland's direction is assured as ever. He is working in full horror mode, creating one of the best "he's outside the window" scenes since John Carpenter's Halloween. Garland riffs on horror tropes in creative ways as the film becomes increasingly surreal, all culminating in one of the most outrageous body horror sequences since Society.
Many will get caught up in the myriad of folk horror, Biblical allusions, and shocking gore but Men is clearer than it may first appear. This is a horror movie that functions in reverse, as the evil presence Harper initially encounters grows increasingly pathetic as the film goes on. Along the way, Garland makes pointed remarks to the men watching about what we are capable of making women feel. Smart, unsettling, and truly bonkers at times, this is an admirable horror film that swings for the fences. At the center of it are two fantastic performances from Buckley and Kinnear.