When Alex Garland made the jump from writing to directing, he was one of the few to successfully make the leap. Known for penning acclaimed films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Garland’s directorial debut of Ex Machina in 2014 turned heads. And if his follow up – the 2018 adaptation of the novel Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer – didn’t outright turn heads, it at least tilted them.
But, for me, Garland’s work has only depreciated with each film, and Men is Garland’s least successful directorial effort thus far.
Billed as folk horror, Men is the story of Harper (Jessie Buckley), a widow who escapes to the country for a much-needed recharge. As Harper gradually explores her surrounding and the nearby village, we learn a few things. Firstly: every man she meets has Rory Kinnear’s face, from her puttering Airbnb host to a young teenager she meets in a church. Harper doesn’t seem phased by this fact, leaving to viewers to decide if this is an artistic choice seen only by the audience, a metaphor, or if Harper’s face blindness is so routine that she no longer notices.
Secondly: all of these Rory Kinnears are terrible. From a homeless man who begins to stalk Harper and tries to invade her home, to the police officer who brushes off Harper’s fears, Harper is undermined and treated with contempt by every man she encounters. And as she bounces from one dreadful encounter to the next, Harper flashes back to the toxic relationship she had with her former husband, as well as the events that culminated in his death.
The first half or so of Men is intriguing, if a bit slow. What’s up with all these Rory Kinnears? What happened to Harper’s husband (Paapa Essiedu)? There are enough threads of story to explore to keep the audience going, and this half of the film is easily Men’s strongest. As the camera follows Harper and we see the men who torture her just barely in frame but out of her sight, Men finds its most hair-raising moments. Although nothing in Men raises to the level of a jump scare, for better or worse depending on your horror tastes, it certainly achieves a level of quiet and unsettling menace.
But those threads are woven into a story attempting to be so metaphorical, it feels almost blank. Harper is the everywoman of Men, both in that she represents the experiences almost every woman has had in dealing with men, and in that she is no one specific. Men’s Rory Kinnears are archetypes of men we’ve all met. They’re inappropriate but harmless, or they’re chaste but lustful, or they’re protective but threatening, and so on. These broad metaphorical roles mean no one in Men really feels like a fleshed-out person. Everyone is, instead, the idea of a person. An example of a person.
This means that by the time we get to Men’s graphic and surreal third act, its characters feel like paper dolls. I felt a dull sense of dread as Men’s men began to up the ante into outright terrorizing Harper, but I also felt incredibly detached. I didn’t find myself rooting for her or even feeling anything for her at all. The best Men could achieve for me, on any emotional level, was evoking a shared sense of disgust by drawing on my own personal experiences, and that just wasn’t enough. If I wasn’t already alienated enough at this point, Men pulled out all the stops to get me there, devolving into a grand and surreal final act of metaphorical body horror. At once both avant garde and impersonal, it seemed like Men had a lot to say in this final act, but it also said very little.
That’s not to say there’s nothing good to Men. Garland has cemented himself as having a very specific visual style, and Men only furthers that style. It’s arguable that the “folk” component of this folk horror tale is purely aesthetic, but it’s an aesthetic that works, as the camera zooms in on puddled reflections and lush and vivid greens. Cinematographer Rob Hardy may very well be Garland’s most important secret weapon, garnering him a movie that feels like a collection of artful stills. Garland also knows how to cast as well as how to elicit incredible performances from his cast, and Men is no exception. Buckley does everything she can with her role, however paper-thin it feels, and Kinnear is a perfect chameleon, who melts into the various archetypes he embodies.
Maybe, as the film suggests, men treat women like shit because deep down, they just want our love and approval. Men, then, is almost an exercise in this concept. There are surely layers of meaning and symbolism to be unraveled beneath the film’s surreal surface. But it doesn’t do right by its characters, or its audience, in its attempts to get there.