In the aftermath of a personal tragedy, Harper retreats alone to the beautiful English countryside, hoping to find a place to heal. However, someone or something from the surrounding woods appears to be stalking her. What begins as simmering dread soon becomes a fully formed nightmare, inhabited by her darkest memories and fears.
Men was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. I like Alex Garland as a writer and a director, and I particularly liked his directing work with Annihilation and Ex Machina. His next film would be a full-on horror movie and would have the excellent talent of Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. Unfortunately, I had to wait an extra month before I got the chance to see it here, but in that time, I heard the very mixed reception from people who watched it. Men finally released here and I’m glad to say that I liked the movie, even if I didn’t like it as much as I hoped I would.
Men starts off well at the very least. The first hour is very intriguing as we follow main character Harper (Jessie Buckley) as things about her traumas are revealed to us, and tensions rise as she encounters unsettling things in her new environment. There’s an uneasy atmosphere and seemed to start out as a mystical folk horror, which I thought was effective. Much of the movie can be a bit vague and leans more into atmosphere and vibes over the story, and while not everyone will like that, I thought it worked. I was intrigued to see what would happen next. The tone was interesting; some moments were a bit funny, but I couldn’t tell whether they were intentional or not. This is especially with the ‘horror’ moments. Intentional or not, they result in an off-kilter tone which I actually enjoyed. The third act of is one of the aspects of Men that will linger in the minds of most people who watch it. Some may call it “craziest movie ever”, its really not that crazy or insane for the most part, but the ending certainly is. I can certainly see the metaphor that this gory and grotesque climax is going for, so I won’t reveal too much about what happened, nor the message it was trying to convey. But it just can’t shake the feeling that its only here to be disturbing and memorable. The worst part may be that despite its efforts to be shocking, it generated more laughs than scares with how over the top and goofy it is. This combined with Jessie Buckley’s underwhelmed reactions made me wonder whether it was another intentionally funny moment from Garland. Shock and gore aside, it just doesn’t work as a satisfying conclusion in any way. The ending is so abrupt with no sense of closure, and doesn’t even work as a horror movie ending. Men is a tight film at just over an hour and a half long but it felt like it needed more, the narrative was a little underdeveloped by the end. I think it would’ve been better if it was made as a short film, or if it was longer and fleshed out more of its ideas.
Third act and tonal issues aside, the problems stack up most of all when you look at the film on a thematic level. Unfortunately, you can’t really watch the movie and understand it without looking at it metaphorically in some way. It doesn’t work when you watch as a simple horror movie, it won’t make sense on any level. Some viewers have labelled Men as pretentious. I try to refrain from calling movies pretentious, not only because it’s a rather blanket statement, but its also very easy and there’s usually a better way at highlighting the specific problem. It is certainly a movie that wants to say something, from some of the conversations and all the symbolism and imagery especially with religion. Despite that, it doesn’t end up having much to say. The themes in Men are blatant which isn’t inherently bad; my problem is that they are a bit too easy and simple, yet the film lingers on them for so long. Men is yet another horror movie about trauma. There seems to be a lot of those especially nowadays, and if you are getting tired of these kinds of horror movies (especially with it being another one from A24), the film might irk you because it practically ticks all the boxes. I will say that it is a decent portrayal of trauma, but it is not an exploration of it by any means. It’s definitely a present aspect throughout the film, but it doesn’t go into depth any depth, and is overall a very basic take on grief. This is probably because even though we spend time with Harper in pretty much every scene, we don’t learn much about her as a character. The other main theme which you can probably guess from the title is about men, masculinity, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, etc. As far as I understood, the theme of Men boils down to “men are all the same, and men are all bad”. Perhaps Alex Garland has a lot more to say, but whatever that is, it doesn’t come across here. Now that theme isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t really lend itself to much interpretation or analysis. It really doesn’t help that its not as propound as the movie seems to think it is. Looking at the plotting and the themes, Men’s script feels like it is very close to being really good, but could’ve done with more drafts in order to nail it. As it is, it felt like it just missed the mark.
The performances are some of the best parts of the film. Jessie Buckley as usual delivers another outstanding and powerful performance here. You follow along with her as Harper, and while the film really doesn’t give the character much, Buckley sells it so well. She feels like a believable person and makes it all work whether it be conveying the trauma and grief, or the reaction to the present horror events at her new location. I would say that Buckley’s performance alone makes the movie worth watching. The overall cast of the film is quite small, Rory Kinnear makes up most of the supporting cast. He plays almost all the men in the film, separate characters with their own personalities but with the same face. It is an interesting and intriguing gimmick. However outside of a metaphor about men being all the same, the movie really doesn’t do much with that concept. There isn’t even a moment where Harper reacts to this, even when she’s in a room with 4 Rory Kinnears. Nonetheless, he is great here, and his performances are ambitious to say the least. He effectively jumps between different levels of sinister and conveys the differences between of the characters. Kinnear is generally a supporting actor who is in the background in most movies he’s in, but he really gets to shine in Men.
I think that Alex Garland’s work is once again great here, for all its faults, it is strong on a technical level at least. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is amazing, the visuals are stunning and really take advantage of the beautiful locations, with nice shots of the English countryside and the great production design is put on display well. Without spoiling what happens, the effects for the third act are strong and effectively gory. One of the first things I noticed in the movie was the sound design and sound mixing, which are excellent and were integral to some intense scenes working as well as they did. The soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is really good at setting the right tone for the film and helps to make you feel uneasy. There are a couple of hiccups on a technical level, there is a boy who has the face of Rory Kinnear CGI’d onto him. It looks very weird and uncanny, but I guess it works to make him look unsettling. As previously mentioned, the film didn’t succeed at scares despite its attempts, and came across as being funny than anything.
Men is a very flawed movie and I think it is definitely the worst of Alex Garland’s directing work so far. I do understand why some people really don’t like the movie. It could’ve used a lot more fleshing out for many of its ideas. While there are clear themes on display, the movie doesn’t seem to have much interest in exploring them despite fixating on them so much. Even outside the themes it does suffer from other issues, including some failed attempts at horror and a third act which might be trying just a little too hard to provoke a reaction. With that said, I still like the movie. I enjoyed the atmosphere and off kilter tone, Alex Garland’s direction is pretty strong with some outstanding visuals (which were amazing to see on the big screen), and the performances from Rory Kinnear and especially Jessie Buckley were fantastic. Men is a divisive movie and its hard to tell who the movie would be for, but I do think it has some great aspects that make it worth checking out if you’re into horror.