Film Review – Men
Trigger Warning: Men (2022) deals with possible suicide and sexual assault. Please take care if you would see this film.
Director and screenwriter Alex Garland is back showcasing his latest film after stepping away from the big screen to develop, write, and direct the television series Devs. His last film, Annihilation (2018), was released four years ago after he exploded onto the film scene with his iconic Ex Machina (2014) which garnered him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Men is recognizable as an Alex Garland film as his style is prevalent, and he mixes a bit of weird with a bit of dread. Men is not sci-fi like his previous films, but it is a thriller mixed with horror, a horror film with a deeper meaning.
Men follows Harper (Jessie Buckley), a young woman reeling from a traumatic end to her marriage. She seeks solace and healing by renting an old stately house in a small English town. Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) owns the house and lives on the grounds. He’s a guy with bad teeth, an aristocratic English accent, and stays too long to orient his renters, but seemingly means well. After settling into her temporary home, she goes on a walk in the forest and happens upon a railroad bridge’s tunnel.
It is in this tunnel, dark with moisture dripping down from the cracks, that there is a glimpse of healing, a moment of happiness with Harper. Like all of us probably have, she calls out and listens to the echo, a repeating echo that goes on for too long given the tunnel’s length. Regardless, Harper plays with different song notes, culminating in a song made of repeating echoes. A smile and a chuckle to herself is over when a man emanates from the ground, cast in shadow, and begins following her. Terror follows her as she walks fast, then runs to get back to the house. Even more frightening is that this man is dirty, naked, and has a blank stare bordering on curiosity. Being a single woman, nothing is more terrifying than being followed, not knowing the person’s intentions. The terror gets amped up when the guy is naked and behaves strangely.
The man stopped following her at the edge of the woods, but Harper later finds him on the house’s grounds, staring in the windows, mute but interested in Harper. With a close-up of this man, the audience can see that Rory Kinnear is also playing him. In fact, he is also a policeman that shows up to arrest the naked man. It becomes evident that there is a rash of men who look like each other. What is questionable is if Harper realizes it.
Another Rory Kinnear character is the vicar of the town’s church. On the second day, Harper walks to the local church, and in its empty solace, she cries out in pain, letting loose any pent-up emotions from the end of her marriage. The vicar overhears the screams and confronts Harper outside. Harper feels like she is getting some release and some therapy from this man until he makes an outrageous point about her husband, and Harper storms off.
The climax and last third of this film will be what is talked about, not the nuances and symbolism of the film leading up to it. Men is the most graphic of Alex Garland’s films. It is not a horror film until the climax, as Rory Kinnear’s characters are more off-putting and disturbing than something out of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). There is a lot of blood, violence, and just horribly disfiguring things, as well as attempted rape. I didn’t watch much of it because I knew the gist of what was happening and was grossed out. Garland really went for it in terms of what he was trying to “give birth” to in his final scenes. What I enjoyed the most, if you can say that about anything that happens at the end of this film, is that Harper is just over what is happening to her. She’s no longer scared, more perturbed at the repeated assaults on her. She’s done.
Whether you agree with what Alex Garland is trying to convey in this film, one cannot deny that Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear excelled at depicting their characters. I have loved Rory Kinnear since he portrayed the Creature in Penny Dreadful and delight in seeing him in so many different roles. Men gives him a unique challenge to portray many characters in the same film, even acting with himself. Not every actor can pull off what he does in this film. Jessie Buckley has to play the epitome of a broken woman who somehow finds her strength. It is a little cliché that Harper goes through this journey, but at least Garland kept it interesting, if not a bit heavy-handed.
Men is all at once idyllic in terms of its setting and Harper’s goal. Like it oftentimes does, men ruin the serene, quiet, healing place that Harper picked out. The film is rife with Pagan and Christian imagery; a college student could write a term paper on that alone. I have to wonder if the film was directed by a female rather than Garland if the end product would have been better. I understand he wrote the script, but it takes a woman to understand Harper’s perspective fully. However, it’s the film we received from Garland that the audience will judge, and I have a feeling that women may not enjoy it. To be sure, it delivers a hearty discourse and will be the subject of post-screening discussions and tweets. Garland put his art out into the world; how we react to it is not up to him. Men assault Harper, both physically and metaphorically, and it is easy for me to put myself in her shoes and empathize with her.
I look forward to reading male critics’ reviews as they may focus on things different from more well-written female critics than I. I still have questions about the ending; Men will not give you a definite answer on what Harper experienced.