Writer/director Alex Garland has made a career in film and television delivering highly conceptual sci-fi with gruesome, surreal twists and stunning cinematography. Movies like Ex Machina and limited series like Devs have confronted the ethical ramifications and possibilities of things like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, while projects like Annihilation have dug into the existential difficulties of extraterrestrial life – and while each was certainly scary in their own rights, none were fully realized, capital H Horror Movies. Her latest project, Men, seeks to change that, taking Garland from sleek, modern sci-fi to the unmistakably low-tech world of popular horror.
And make no mistake, Men is a horror movie. It centers on a woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) who, following a huge personal tragedy related to the death of her husband, tries to get away from it all by renting a sprawling pastoral country home in the rural England in an effort to deal with some of the emotional fallout. The owner of the property she rents is a clumsy but seemingly harmless man named Jeffery (Rory Kinnear) who gives her the land and then leaves her alone. Naturally, things start going off the rails almost immediately, and a strange encounter in the woods leaves Harper feeling alone and exposed in an unfamiliar house, surrounded by strange men who seemingly wish to harm her.
Men excel when they lean into their horror sensibilities. Garland’s eye for composition in every shot lends itself extremely well to setting up and earning some truly heartbreaking scares, executed in both the middle of the night and the middle of the day. It’s the kind of film where every corner of the frame has been considered and used to maximum effectiveness, whether it’s hiding threats to build tension or delivering painterly character moments to help build the emotional life of the characters. Buckley, in particular, delivers an incredible performance in these particular moments – more than once she has to perform minutes of dialogue-free stretches, but she never wastes a second and never drops the ball.
Kinnear, meanwhile, is tasked with playing not just the clumsy Jeffery, but a handful of other village characters, all of whom manage to be just similar enough to be weird, but in ways so subtle that you could possibly watch the whole movie without you realizing it. it’s a whole guy who plays these roles. The more violent and harrowing things get, the more Kinnear is given to play and the more he shines as a particularly disturbing horror movie monster.
The unfortunate downside to all of this, however, is the ultimate reward. Like Garland’s other projects, Men wants to have a larger thesis than simply “a woman is terrorized by a monster”, and it makes a valiant attempt to tackle major themes like cultural and social misogyny and the socialization of young boys into toxic masculinity, he never quite manages to stick the landing. It’s unusual for a Garland movie to fumble in terms of big ideas, but the subtlety of Men’s biggest message never quite dovetails with the shock and awe of violence and gore and the two inevitably end in compete for space. More than once, the story hiccupped in an attempt to offer somewhat contrived and intrusive dialogue to justify things like Harper deciding to stay in the house, or stumbled in an attempt to add another layer on top. of the already complex and obvious villain. . In the end, the monster seems almost too easy and too obvious considering how much the men seem to want to confront and expose – which is a shame, given how interesting the initial design and concept was.
And speaking of shock and awe, there’s a lot of this one. While Garland has definitely never shied away from going blood and gore in her other projects, Men goes several steps beyond what one might expect, embarking on a third act full of body horror at Cronenbergian flavor. Think of that scene in Annihilation where Oscar Isaac finds eels in his friend’s stomach and you’re on the right track. It really is that bonkers – and it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
That said, Men is a hit as a horror movie, despite its occasional stumble. It’s a slow spiral of combustion in terror, mixed with the kind of symbolism and surreal long sequences that are unique to Garland’s style and overall aesthetic, paired with some really brilliant scares and gore that your stomach turns. If that sounds like something you’re on board for, you’ll absolutely have a great time. If you’re looking for something more along the lines of the clean, polished existentialism of a film like Ex Machina or a show like Devs, however, you might leave the theater wanting.