If there’s one studio that’s makes me excited about the state of cinema these days, then it’s A24. They give directors the chance to create varied and fascinating fare that would be classed as medium budget films in the pre superhero blockbuster era. They’re the exception to what type of films are made these days. With that in mind, a new Alex Garland film with a provocative title (for the time we live in) had my attention. Does it succeed? Well, you can find out after the jump. What did you think of Men? Let me know in the comments below.
And if you like this post or any of my other horror-related ramblings, then you can find more at my second home- Horror Obsessive: https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/
Alex Garland is no stranger to the endangerment of women at the hands of men. The last act of his script for 28 Days Later had a twist of a sadistic system that placed the fair sex into a form of slavery. And if you were to remove the science fiction trappings of Ex Machina, than you would have a chess game between a creator and his female creation insofar as the latter is trying to escape captivity via the central protagonist. On the surface, Men is Garland’s clearest statement about female peril. However, as it goes along, the film unravels into many branching paths about its theme, resulting in an ambitious but murky experience.
After her estranged husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), commits suicide, widower, Harper (Jessie Buckley) decides to holiday at a country retreat. However, as her stay continues, the young woman finds herself involved with some alarmingly incidents. This is coupled with an uneasy sense that all the males she encounters in the village are the same person or a supernatural entity.
Like the folk horror classic, The Wicker Man (1973), Men is made with an exacting and patient sense of dread with flickers of startling imagery combined with a subtle sense of the uncanny entering the mundane. The best example is when Harper takes a photo of a characteristic house and we get a glimpse of a mysterious pale figure in the centre of the picture.
Men also earns its creepy factor from the nerve-racking encounters Harper has along with the last twenty minutes playing like the missing link between David Cronenberg’s The Brood and John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Unlike those films, Men is fundamentally flawed in its thematic exploration. On the face of it, you could interpret it as the weight of male attention (in various guises) crashing down and ultimately suffocating Harper. However, with allusions to the Adam and Eve parable (including a moment where Harper picks and eats an apple from a tree), and tiny details making the film seem like an internalised chamber piece about the guilt of being a domestic abuse victim; Men does not quite connect the dots in what it’s about.
This is a shame as the rest of the proceedings proves to be quite excellent. Jessie Buckley gives a fierce and vulnerable performance as a woman, trying to come to terms with her husband’s abusive behaviour and suicide. Rory Kinnear gives a stunning and engrossing Brechtian style performance that encapsulates the attitude of a dismissive and aggressive being.
And in his third feature, Alex Garland creates a foreboding atmosphere with his filmmaking. The best example is a montage of images that juxtapose Harper’s tranquil piano playing. There’s a medium shot of a long stretch of field that looks like a shadow is being cast over it. The moment gives the impression of a ship looming over the area, or we’re seeing a version of desert and shifting sands. It’s scenes like this that show Garland is a talented horror director. However, by the end of Men, I was wishing for the disquieting simplicity of The Wicker Man (at least insofar as exploration of theme etc).