In his first two directorial efforts, Alex Garland made two films with science-fiction as the primary genre, but horror is one of the key components in their brilliance. The plot of Ex Machina emphasizes meditations on the subject of artificial intelligence, and its tone is driven by the terror that comes from isolation, deception, and suspicion. Annihilation features the exploration of a new biological landscape following the arrival of an extraterrestrial entity, and some of its most memorable sequences are utterly bone chilling in depicting mutation and metamorphosis.
For his third film, Men, Garland takes a new approach. An embrace of the fantastical replaces the cold reality depicted in his previous work, and having the audience confront specific fears is made the primary focus. Not sacrificed in the slightest is his inventiveness as a storyteller, though, as the movie is a brilliantly layered allegory that examines gender relationships in our world. And while it’s not quite as phenomenal and engaging as the writer/director’s first two features, it’s an execution of awesome cinematic vision that delivers spectacular body horror in its finale that will drop the jaw of every genre fan.
Like Ex Machina and Annihilation, Men is Alex Garland’s third film that takes its protagonist out of the city and into seclusion, with Harper (Jessie Buckley) taking a trip to stay in the English countryside for a few weeks following the dissolution of her marriage and a tragedy involving her soon-to-be-ex-husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). She rents a lovely, 500-year-old cottage with an apple tree out front from a genial, posh man named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and attempts to recover from her fresh mental scars.
While out on a walk one day, appreciating the beauty of nature and appreciating the intense echoes of a tunnel, Harper unfortunately gets the attention of a naked, feral man (Rory Kinnear) – whom she quickly gets away from, but still follows her back to her cottage. When she spots this man outside and he tries to reach in via the mail slot, she calls the police and they come to arrest him.
That terror briefly seems to be at an end, but Harper remains haunted by memories of what happened to James, and encounters at both the local church and the pub reveal that the nightmare of what’s going on around her is only beginning, and its broadening.
Alex Garland has something to say with Men, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with it.
In this fantastical landscape where all men seem to have the same face, symbolism rules the aesthetic – and the movie’s most important strength is that it’s never distracting or overbearing. At some points it’s subtle (like shots of dandelion seeds blowing through the air, or Harper plucking an apple from the cottage’s apple tree) and other examples are overt and key parts of the plot (like Rory Kinnear’s characters each representing dominant masculine roles in society), but every frame adds to Men’s messaging and themes.
It’s a film that feels intricately built, and the meticulousness of the design makes it demand rewatching so that you can take in the whole experience and the details and fully appreciate how they build on what’s being said in Harper’s grief-stricken hell.
Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear deliver brilliant performances in Men.
Having previously played the lead in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, Jessie Buckley seems to have found an excellent niche for herself in surrealist features, as her performance in Men is pivotal, and she does a perfect job as the audience’s vessel through the evermore strange terror. She makes Harper’s devastation in the wake of what happened with James palpable, and she proves herself a talented scream queen reacting to and fight back against the horrors that emerge in the third act.
Rory Kinnear is given a tremendously daunting task, playing a total of eight roles in the film, and he does a marvelous job both bringing individual personalities to the parts, and delivering some disturbing performances. He is a dangerous and unpredictable threat as the feral stalker who follows Harper, but his greatest moments in Men are playing the vicar – who has one incredible scene in the churchyard with the protagonist that begins innocently, but turns sinister in such immediate fashion that it inspires goosebumps. Kinnear also deserves immense commendation for the remarkable and bold things he does in the third act… but saying anything more than that would mean giving away secrets best reserved for the big screen.
Men isn’t as well-structured or compelling as Alex Garland’s other work, but still fascinating.
Where Alex Garland falters with Men is in the execution of the film’s pacing, which simply put doesn’t have the intense narrative urgency that is built into both Ex Machina and Annihilation. While it would be wrong to call it messy, it isn’t as formally structured as his previous two movies, which leads to drags in the second act when it’s not wholly clear where the story is going. It certainly satisfies with its thrilling and crazy finale, but it doesn’t ever succeed in getting its hooks into you quite the same way as the best examples of Garland’s work (which includes his screenplays for both Dredd and 28 Days Later).
Alex Garland has consistently proven himself to be among the smartest and most impressive filmmakers working today, and while Men isn’t his most compelling work to date, it’s another fascinating addition to his resume. It continues his run of showcasing the amazing artistry that can be executed in genre storytelling, and, thanks to its shocking and grotesque ending, will surely be discussed and dissected for years to come.