Men – Film Review
Director – Alex Garland
Writer – Alex Garland
Stars – Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu
Alex Garland’s third feature sees him move away from science-fiction, toward the well-furrowed fields of ‘folk horror’. There’s nothing wrong with another trudge through the hedgerows of Haunted England, but Garland – rather regrettably – is also aiming for the (profusely) bleeding edge of the ‘social horror’ trend. These two modes – one mytho-poetic; the other insistently contemporary – do not mesh, and the result is gooey stuff in more ways than one.
The story involves recently widowed Harper (Jessie Buckley), who decamps to a big house in the country to process her emotional trauma. Despite the numbing familiarity of the set-up, poor Harper manages to look not only surprised but horrified when sinister things begin happening around her.
The gimmick is that every male character in the film – from the country laird to the local vicar – is played by the ever-versatile Rory Kinnear. He even turns up as a brattish little boy, though the face-swapping VFX isn’t quite as nimble as the actor himself. It’s a clever idea, and Kinnear certainly makes hay with it – though he’s at his best in the more comic moments, which call to mind a high-tech League of Gentlemen.
When the film gets down to business, the most obvious comparison is probably Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) – from the nature imagery to the glassy slow-mo flashbacks, to the bare-faced button-pushing. Garland is a less flamboyant button-pusher than Uncle Lars, though – as well as a more pedestrian stylist – and his film comes off lightweight by comparison.
At the very least, Antichrist was horrifying in ways that went beyond convention. The same is not true of Men, which tends to the tropey. We get a woman cowering behind the kitchen island with a knife; children in creepy masks; some ‘now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t’ business involving a security light (also trotted out in David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween). We get footage of a decomposing animal corpse, to remind us that this is ‘elevated’ horror and therefore has something to do with the body and abjection. It begins to feel like a look-book of signifiers, more than anything else.
Men is aggressively convinced of its singularity of vision, but almost everything it shows us, including would-be transgressive late developments that will not be spoiled here, feels like it’s been done better elsewhere. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) has a similar metaphorical flimsiness, but that film got away with it because it was socked across with such ferocity, and it didn’t keep stopping the action for expository video-calls with a ‘sassy best friend’ straight out of central casting.
Garland’s film has a dithering quality. It projects an image of provocation, but provokes nothing in particular. Its competing half-baked metaphors (again, no spoilers) simply cancel each other out. It has two endings, neither of which clicks. Syntactically, it also feels off: occasional intimations that we are seeing Harper’s subjective experience are undermined by the fact that we keep being shown things to which she is not privy – notably a well-choreographed but generic ‘he’s behind you’ sequence that depends on a logic the film later appears to contradict.
It’s reductive to subject a multivalent text to an essentialist reading, but… this film is called Men. And it must be said that, for all its efforts to insert itself into the conversation surrounding psychological and physical violence perpetrated by men against women – it feels like a very ‘male’ film. Though Buckley is excellent, Harper is defined only in terms of her relationship to men. An exchange in which she conceals her musical ability, presumably for fear of being prodded to demonstrate it, feels true enough, but hardly incisive. In fact, it feels very much like the kind of observation made by a man keen to prove that he ‘empathises’ with women by speaking for them. Meanwhile, there is an underlying revulsion for the female body and those functions that are coded as female. The film’s engagement with the riches of English and Celtic folklore is negligible, and its deployment of the Sheela-na-gig archetype feels prurient and misapprehended, as if Garland is unable to conceive of either nature-based paganism or the vulva as anything other than sources of cheap shock.
Maybe the more generous interpretation of Men is that Garland is trying to reckon, in some way, with his own gender politics. Ex Machina was lots of fun, but its robot femme fatale was straight out of a comic book; Annihilation was exhilarating viewing, but its ‘human interest’ involved a wife undertaking a suicide mission out of guilt for cheating on her husband. Quite what Men adds to that gallery of male fantasy is unclear – but it certainly makes an effort to look busy.