Synopsis – A young woman goes on a solo vacation to the English countryside after the death of her ex-husband.
My Take – In a time where cinema is heavily dominated by nostalgic affairs, superhero mashups, and animated features, A24 continues to find ways to back original films that revitalize and stain themselves in one’s memory. Especially the horror genre with each entry continuing to raise the bar for shock factor elements.
However the hype meter surrounding their next only doubled when the indie studio decided to pair up with Alex Garland, known for writing excellent films like 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007) and Never Let Me Go (2010), and for directing exceptional sci-fi pieces like Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), of whom of course I too am a huge fan.
But while the film is competently made with good directing and performances, to my dismay, it doesn’t work for me at all. Mainly, as there isn’t enough story or substance to balance out the usual A24 type abstract and metaphorical stuff present here. Fueled by nightmarish imagery, extremely disturbing themes, a persistently unsettling atmosphere, and an extremely engaging lead performance from Jessie Buckley, the film, without a doubt, had serious potential to be complete the trifecta of excellence for writer-director Alex Garland, sadly, his nihilistic take on the insuperable gap between men and women never just quite meets its potential.
Sure, in regards to being an elevated horror, it levels to great heights that fans of the genre are going to love. However, what ends up on screen also seemed too confused with its narrative approach. Then came the body horror, the pace, and of course the ending, which further complicated any sense with the grotesque and symbolic stuff crammed in.
This is the least impressive of Garland’s directorial efforts, but he has skill on the page and behind the camera that is displayed. I rather wait for his next.
The story follows Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), a young widow, who recently witnessed her husband, James Marlowe (Paapa Essiedu), either kill himself or possibly slip from an upstairs apartment after she informs him that she wants a divorce. Now dealing with immense guilt and grief, Harper ends up renting a large house in the English countryside to get away from everything and heal. But while the caretaker, a local, tweed-clad eccentric named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), is a peculiar character, she looks forward to her spending time alone, while occasionally keeping her closest friend, Riley (Gayle Rankin) over Face Time updated.
But things begin to get weird when she encounters a naked man in the woods, who follows her back to the house. However, this one incident is the only the first in a long line of terrors for Harper, as every man and boy she meets finds a new way to torture and demean her, making her question her everything.
The film rather starts out very promisingly and does an excellent job of using her backstory to establish the film’s themes with well-placed flashbacks that take a look at Harper’s painful relationship with James. As the film progresses there’s an increasing atmosphere of dread as ensuing interactions between Harper and a series of different males become more and more bizarre.
Each character seems to turn on her in one way or another, in particular a vicar who suddenly blames her for her husband’s suicide. To add to the surreal, almost nightmarish vibe, every male character in the film, including a young boy, is played skillfully by English actor Rory Kinnear. The fact that Harper never acknowledges the similarities between these male characters signals that it’s a device, a dramatic contrivance that some audiences might not even notice at first, but which makes perfect emotional sense.
But the twist on the standard set up is that Harper’s rationale tells her that men shouldn’t be stalking her for no reason, shouldn’t be dismissing her feelings about her own experiences, and shouldn’t be intruding on her body as if it was theirs by right. Except you don’t need to go to some remote rural village to come across such men.
However, the film begins spiraling downwards in the third act that relies more on body horror and an uncomfortable amount of gore. A turn which is not only just unexpected, but also feels entirely unearned. Here, director Garland uses the framework of folk horror to hang his narrative and dive into metaphorical elements.
Making matters worse is that it seems confused about what it wants to say. As a result, the film leaves a lot unresolved, part of that is what makes the film disposable and forgettable. Adding more hurt to injury, is the frustrating ending which walks away without provide any clarification. While I’m all for ambiguous conclusions and unhappy endings, a staple for most A24 films, here, director Garland just walks away without giving anything.
Performance wise, Jessie Buckley is riveting as a woman combating not only this swarm of men, but also her thundering feelings of regret, grief, rage, and fear. But as the man playing the men, Rory Kinnear really steals the show. His performances are so distinct that some may even miss that they are all done by the same person. From cycling flawlessly through an entire troupe of British types, from the stuffy land-owner to the brusque cop to the publican pulling pints at the local green man. They all bring their own varieties of menace to the proceedings, each a bit different from the one before.
In smaller roles, Paapa Essiedu and Gayle Rankin are good. On the whole, ‘Men’ is an underwhelming, disturbing and forgettable horror offering with a confused narrative and very little substance.
Directed – Alex Garland
Rated – R
Run Time – 100 minutes