Are men OK? This meme-friendly query lingers in multiple films touched by novelist, screenwriter and director Alex Garland, most notably the blood-simple climaxes of his triptych of collaborations with Danny Boyle (The Beach, adapted from his novel; and 28 Days Later and Sunshine, both from his original screenplays), as well as his directorial debut Ex Machina. His new film Men, which extends the verdant doominess of Machina and Annihilation, seems like it will continue in that vein at first, as a woman isolating in a country house encounters a series of increasingly freaky male intruders. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that despite its title, this movie is an answer, and a follow-up question. Are men OK? No, obviously not. How are the women doing?
If this sounds a bit shallow, maybe even a bit overpleased with its now-familiar metaphorror angling, well, it’s plainly difficult to argue otherwise. Men is a horror film operating largely under nightmare logic and allegorical rumbling, and in a broad sense can’t offer many true surprises. The imagery may be bold, but once the movie’s all-important traumatic backstory becomes clear (and the movie is noticeably willing to clarify its all-important traumatic backstory), the anything-goes impossibilities of the plot still manage to feel neatly hemmed in.
And yet here is where the visceral power of horror kicks in: Men is an effective, memorable experience through sheer force of craft. That includes, especially, the craft of lead performer Jessie Buckley, who has become an expert in physicalizing anxiety. Here she plays Harper, a woman who escapes the recent end of a toxic relationship, heading to a country-house rental for some much-needed decompression. The manor’s owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), gives her an avuncular, folksy, slightly unnerving tour of the place; he’s the kind of guy you might charitably describe as “quite a character,” as indeed Harper does in a call with a friend.
As Harper explores the grounds around her temporary home, painted in the heavy greens that loom over all of Garland’s features, she meets other, stranger men whose eccentricities can’t be so easily laughed off. One in particular, fully nude and bleeding, inspires a call to the police. Though no one outright dismisses Harper’s fears, everyone she meets does seem eager to downplay signs of trouble with passive-aggressive social politeness—at best. Other typical avatars of harmlessness (a child; a priest) quickly become hostile. Lights flash on and off; figures appear and disappear in the distance; and, eventually, male bodies contort and bulge, sometimes as if attempting to clench themselves into bloody fists. There are other gruesome bodily comparisons that would give away too much—not of the plot but of Garland’s way of harnessing special effects for their most nightmarish possible purposes. Whatever mental or physical hell Harper is living through, she’s on her own.
This is emphasized with a gimmick that reveals itself fairly quickly: Apart from Harper’s flashback ex, all the male characters are played by Kinnear in various forms of makeup—a cheeky #YesAllMen bit of casting that mirrors the shifting emotions flashing through Harper’s psyche. Garland’s neatest (and least immediately predictable) idea is to construct a sort-of two-hander where the other hand keeps lurching out of view, then circling around to sneak up behind her. Much of the movie, then, is effectively nerve-jangling; its dreaminess doesn’t cause the tension to slacken. It’s as if the narrative keeps pushing Harper to have it out with a force she can’t confront with any satisfaction.
Given how well Men works at generating horror, and how often Garland’s stories endgame with that bloody intensity, genre fans may reasonably ask whether it would be so hard for the director to just come out with it and make a regular old slasher picture. He could infuse it with the same lurking terror, surreal gore and psychological acuity without getting quite so presentational about his Big Ideas—or speaking his ambiguities aloud, as he does at least once in Men. But there are worse things than foisting obvious metaphors upon the A24 upscale-grindhouse crowd, especially when it involves giving Buckley such an uncluttered showcase. Compared to her multitudes, the glowering, grinning, mangled, relentless or otherwise not-OK men of the world can’t help but look the same.
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu
Release Date: May 20, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.