Without question, Men is a lot to take in. Just know that going in. Finding the horror in emotional manipulation, gaslighting, and toxic masculinity is tricky ground to traverse, but this latest A24 elevated horror film largely succeeds. It asks a lot of you, both in terms of its formal presentation as well as its thematic elements. Writer/director Alex Garland builds on the love of challenging genre cinema that he’s been crafting as a director, with Men fitting in solidly between Ex Machina and Annihilation. Less likely to get awards attention than the former and less likely to be a cult favorite like the latter, it still very much carves its own unique path. If nothing else, it’s more evidence that whatever Garland crafts is worth taking notice of.
What makes Men more than just an exercise in suffering is striking visuals, tremendous acting, and an open-ended nature that leaves at least a bit open to interpretation. This slow burn will leave a mark on you, that’s for sure. The question is just whether it will be a positive one or not. For my money, while there are missteps, much more works here than does not. Plus, there’s at least one sequence in the movie that you literally have to see in order to believe. Garland fans are going to want to pour over this one for as much meaning as possible.
In the aftermath of the death of her ex-husband James (Paapa Essiedu), a trip to the English countryside seems to be just what Harper (Jessie Buckley) needs. Greeted at the stately manner she’s going to be staying at by landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), she finds him to be just a little bit off. But, he appears harmless and she needs the time alone to process the traumatic end to not just her union, but James’ life, which we see play out over the course of the film.
As soon as Harper leaves the house, however, strange things start to happen. A nude man (Kinnear) appears to be following/stalking her, leaving the woods and approaching the home. In the nearby town, her interactions with a young boy (Kinnear again), a policeman (also Kinnear), and a Vicar (Kinnear too, you guessed it), unsettle her more and more. Then, things get really weird, but I’ll leave that for all of you to discover.
This is basically a two-hander, with Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear at their career bests. Buckley is in every scene, while Kinnear plays a litany of roles, making for two very different but still stunning performances. Kinnear does a lot of little things that may go unnoticed, but it all adds up. As for Buckley, she runs the gamut here, delivering the most complete turn we’ve seen from her yet. The small supporting cast, aside from the aforementioned Paapa Essiedu, includes Gayle Rankin, but this is all about Buckley and Kinnear.
Filmmaker Alex Garland is really going off in some wild directions here, especially as things reach their denouement. Often arresting visuals from cinematographer Rob Hardy will linger long after this flick ends, including some gnarly gore that serves an almost profound purpose as things progress. Garland is leaning hard on his two performers, as well as many a metaphor, but the tightrope mostly works. On occasion, something thematically doesn’t fully land, but his thoughts on the toll emotional manipulation and gaslighting take on a soul are hammered home. It’s not a soft touch, but neither is what Harper is going through. Where Garland runs the risk of losing folks is at the finale. Something happens that is hard to shake, though I’m sure plenty won’t know what to make of it. Garland never makes it easy on the audience, but then again, when has he?
Men is going to be polarizing. Some will love it. Some will hate it. A significant portion of the viewing audience won’t fully know what to make of it. However, as long as you have an open mind and a bit of patience, Garland again is offering up something with a lot to say. There are times where his ambitious exceed his grasp, but largely, it’s on point. At the very least, discussing this film once the credits roll is really going to be something!