Alex Garland is the visionary director behind sci-fi thrillers Annihilation and Ex Machina. Steering away from sci-fi and into the realm of horror, the accomplished and imaginative filmmaker has ventured into the evergreen topic of gender politics, grief, trauma and recovery with Men. Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear, this eerie horror drama follows a young woman who takes a solo vacation into the English countryside in the aftermath of her husband’s untimely death.
Pivoting off a dysfunctional marriage on the verge of divorce, this atmospheric and suspenseful horror drama thriller serves as a character portrait and by extension social commentary using the ancient symbols of the Green Man and Sheela na gig. Wanting to employ these symbols in a film for over a decade, Garland finds his opportunity to leverage the mythological beings, traditionally represented in stone as icons depicting a masculine nature being and feminine being with exposed breasts and vulva. Offsetting one against the other, the timely “all men are trash” hot topic makes for an excellent conversation starter in this deeply symbolic horror.
Exploring a woman’s attempt to recover from a tragedy, Garland cleverly seesaws the real and unreal to heighten the tension belying this slow-burning thriller. Instead of a direct take, Men uses unsettling power dynamics, nudity and surreal visual effects to create an otherworldly paradigm against the backdrop of an old English village and nearby forest. Using a high concept to drive the film’s poetic subtext, all of the town’s men come to represent various micro to macro aggressions in a place where no one can be trusted. Mostly effective, the eeriness is pervasive yet its full effect is often stunted by the repetitive and unintentional comedic undertone of its visual effects.
While grotesque body horror visuals enhance the metaphor and innate creepiness of Men, strong co-lead performances from Buckley and Kinnear drive the drama. A strong and defiant lead as always, Buckley’s well-balanced performance keeps us in the dark as we try to figure out if what she’s experiencing is present danger or psychological torment. Counterbalanced by a chameleon of a performance from Kinnear, the actor’s already impressive range is further augmented by make up and visual effects. Rounding off the main trio is Paapa Essiedu, tying everything together with a short-lived yet haunting turn.
“Hello? …hello? …hello?”
Forming part of the elevated horror subgenre, Men is eerie and provocative, warranting deeper exploration, yet its full effect is not always felt. Coming from a science fiction background where worlds are typically built from the ground up, there are similarities between Garland’s previous films and Men even if it isn’t as reliant on special effects. Using the abandoned train tunnels, lush forests and a countryside manor typical of a British murder mystery to good effect, Men is its own wild beast. It may overextend its reach at a few intervals, but remains unnervingly dark, self-assured and thoughtful in spite of these tonal hiccups.
Men isn’t preachy as much as it’s poetic, leaning on symbols with intention but subtle enough to allow for multiple interpretations. This atmosphere of uncertainty continues to siphon suspense as viewers try to untangle the meaning behind the action and emotion. Yet, Men is best enjoyed as a surreal entity, geared to provoke thought about a serious issue in a metaphysical light. Teasing out the idea of a traumatised woman forced to endure a townful of toxic men who have all spawned from the same seed, the film does have intrigue and immediacy. Similar to Last Night in Soho, the political undertones add gravity, even if the overriding genre doesn’t find the director in their comfort zone. While Garland’s film about misogyny and confronting one’s demons is vivid, it also unpacks timely gender issues, taking it well beyond coming-of-age drama and the process of recovery into something worthy of further analysis.
The bottom line: Unsettling