Written and Directed by Alex Garland.
Starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, and Gayle Rankin.
In the aftermath of a personal tragedy, Harper retreats alone to the beautiful English countryside, hoping to find a place to heal. But someone or something from the surrounding woods appears to be stalking her. What begins as simmering dread becomes a fully-formed nightmare, inhabited by her darkest memories and fears.
In a startling opening that sets Alex Garland’s Men‘s anxiety-fueled and paranoid tone throughout, a life-changing traumatic event for Jessie Buckley’s Harper jolts with an eerie love song synced up with a shellshocked facial reaction. The cinematography from regular collaborator Rob Hardy also happens to be filtered through an orange hue, perhaps representing the ominous uncertainty and danger she appears to live with every day. And while the English countryside she visits and rents out as part of a healing process is captured with vast space, blue flower beds, a comforting manor, and the usual hypnotic visual freakouts from the filmmaker, it’s the sound design, above all else, that gets underneath the skin here. The score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is effectively creepy, but simple concepts such as sound traveling and echoing across a tunnel make for something uniquely unnerving.
Like Alex Garland’s debut and sophomore features (Ex Machina and Annihilation), Men is a cerebral exercise that demands viewer interpretation alongside researching a plethora of images here that seem inspired by folklore (get ready to enter things like “naked man four-leaf clover meaning” into your Google search engine). However, this is also a relatively straightforward home invasion thriller of increasing suspense that quickly becomes claustrophobic and suffocating as every pushback begins to feel futile. In some ways, that’s a benefit, as once the film gets going, it’s practically a freight train of tension and shocking imagery, but certain aspects of the exposition feel slightly undercooked (although it’s always possible more will reveal itself on rewatches, which I highly recommend).
Harper is shown around the lavish countryside home by its caretaker, an upbeat and offbeat Rory Kinnear, who goes on to inhabit multiple roles throughout Men. And if you are already huffing and puffing that Alex Garland dares make a movie about the many ways men can be trash, well, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out. This is also the aspect that’s a lot more psychologically screwy, leaving viewers plenty to stew over. Harper is coming out of a failed marriage (an explosively angry Paapa Essiedu in flashbacks), with many scenes involving the different Rory Kinnears’ potentially doubling as a guilt-tripped conscience living in her head.
Regardless, the threats surrounding her are genuine, ranging from a nude stalker covered in moss, a small police unit that doesn’t seem to take the intrusion too seriously, a vicar who is quick to cast blame, and a young man eager to play hide and seek that resorts to blatantly misogynistic insults when he is denied. There is also Alex Garland’s take on the new trope of a friend available to Zoom in (Gayle Rankin), which could have been nixed, even if it plays out unexpectedly.
Even Harper, having experienced a great tragedy, still bears a level of naivety, openly assuming that she will be safe and that the police know what they are doing upon arresting the naked intruder. It is a subtle indictment of how these services especially fail women. Each of these men also pushes her into a different form of harassment, whether verbal or sexual and eventually violent, forcing Harper to defend herself with whatever weapons are lying around.
This builds to an ultimate hypnotic “what the everloving fuck am I watching” finale that’s mesmerizing, jaw-dropping, and as thematically ambiguous as the climax to Annihilation. The point from Alex Garland seems to be, among making a statement about love during the ending, how multiple personalities can reside inside men, with an unfortunate amount of them being deceptive and gross. But even if you are sitting there flabbergasted, knocked on your ass, and disgusted without a clue what is happening, there aren’t enough superlatives to accurately describe how arresting it all is.
It’s also crucial to mention that as talented a filmmaker as Alex Garland is, none of this remotely works without Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear giving themselves over to this vision. And while Rory Kinnear assuredly has the flashier performance, Men also gets a brilliantly tormented performance from Jessie Buckley that conveys how the sins and trauma inflicted by man (or men) haunt forever like a spectre.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com