Alex Garland's squirmy new horror starring Jessie Buckley is the sort of barmy, bravura filmmaking that's not so much trying to scare you as infect you with dread.
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I went into “Men” knowing little about it, other than the horror film had a lot of indie buzz, starred Jessie Buckley and was written and directed by Alex Garland, a veteran screenwriter who transitioned to the director’s chair a few years ago with the startling “Ex Machina.” These were all good signs.
I confess I thought it was going to be another scary movie more about sociopolitical commentary than actually generating fright, sort of a companion to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” but with toxic masculinity in the crosshairs. And it is a little bit that, though it’s more of a subtext than in your face.
The other surprising thing is it’s a very mood-driven, symbolism-heavy piece that feels like a piece of grimy mythology that wriggled its way out of the earth. To me it’s the film “The Green Knight” was trying to be, full of primal portents and dizzying imagery that seeps into your soul. It takes chances and isn’t afraid to go to weird places other movies wouldn’t.
This is the sort of barmy, bravura filmmaking that’s not so much trying to scare you as infect you with a pervading sense of dread. That, it does… and damn well.
Buckley, one of my favorite actresses to emerge in the past few years, plays Harper, a youngish woman who is taking a two-week holiday in the remote British village of Cotson by renting out a charming estate house with 500 years of history. We soon discern that she’s carrying an open wound, and that its source has to do with the passing of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), in uncertain circumstances right after she demanded a divorce.
Once in town she has a sequence of increasingly disturbing encounters with local male figures. There’s Geoffrey, the seemingly affable homeowner who’s honed his awkward, diffident nature into an impersonation of a personality — “a very specific type,” Harper confides via video chat to her best friend, Riley (Gayle Rankin). The tiny tumescent blood vessels on his nose and cheeks give him a vaguely nefarious aspect.
More arresting is the strange, nude man who follows her around while on a walk on the woods. He’s not overtly threatening, seeming more in a daze. Eventually the police are summoned, who are helpful… up to a point.
The town vicar is there to offer consolation, though with serious creeper vibes, while Samuel, a disturbed youngster who goes about in a Marilyn Monroe mask, ratchets up the tension and the insults.
I had not heard about the big quirk of the film — some might call it a gimmick. It took me awhile to organically notice it, perhaps a third of the way through. It might be more interesting for you to experience “Men” without this knowledge, though it’s not exactly a secret and you may already be aware of it. So skip the next paragraph if you prefer to go in unspoilt.
(Slight spoiler in this paragraph: Rory Kinnear plays Geoffrey… and the vicar, and the kid, the cop and the addled naked men — all the titular men in the story apart from James. It’s a mix of hair/makeup and CGI to make him look just different enough to not be immediately apparent. Kinnear adroitly alters his voice and demeanor for each role. The effect is disquieting to say the least.)
Watching this movie is like wandering in a fever dream. We very much identify with Harper and fear for her physical (and mental) wellbeing. Garland’s camera wanders about this little ecosystem, continually reverting to earthbound imagery: a rotting animal carcass, apples falling off a lonely tree, tiny seed spores floating all about and invading Harper’s body.
It’s almost biblical in its impressions. Harper is otherized and dismissed, pursued and threatened. As a woman her mere bodily existence is seen as invasive and impertinent. The vision keeps returning to a strange stone holy water font in the church adorned on each side: a commanding bearded man and a woman about to give birth.
But Harper is not a mere vessel for masculine imperatives and fights against this aggression. Buckley gives a layered, vulnerable yet fierce performance as a woman who’s carrying the weight of guilt — but will only endure it so far. I’ll reveal no more, other than to say the battle is extraordinary, and unexpected, and grotesque.
“Men” is a movie that defies description. People will walk out of it stunned and unable to articulate exactly what the experience is like. (At least, I was.) But it’s the sort of cinema that sits with you, keeps pulling you back into its clutching arms, pervading your thoughts. You will be left disturbed.