British writer and filmmaker Alex Garland has put together an impressive résumé. In addition to penning the 1990s novel, The Beach, Garland has written screenplays for 28 Days Later, Dredd, and Sunshine. His directorial debut was the critically-lauded Ex Machina and his follow-up, Annihilation, was criminally underseen. His latest movie, Men, marks his third collaboration with A24. Alongside Blumhouse Productions, A24 has carved out a reputation as one of the preeminent horror studios. And Garland’s cerebral approach to his material fits perfectly with the brand of elevated horror synonymous with A24. Consistent with his past work, Men has divided audiences and critics since its release.
Following the tragic death of her husband, Harper retreats to a countryside house rental to heal. But she’s instantly confronted by strange and increasingly intrusive behaviour from the various men in the community. When one man threatens her safety, Harper finds herself trapped by inexplicable hate and anger.
As a movie experience, Alex Garland’s Men exemplifies what you expect from an A24 movie. In fact, Men ‘out A24’s’ most A24 movies. This is a slow-burn movie that mixes folk and psychological horror alongside heavy visual metaphors. This is a beautifully and precisely filmed movie where every shot feels purposeful and perfectly framed. Though its pacing is methodical, Men is consistently engaging. Garland uses lighting and sound (or lack thereof) to strike an uneasy atmosphere, which he maintain and ratchets up. In particular, Garland uses prolonged periods of quiet to put audiences off-balance. That is, Men often creates a false sense of safety and when Garland introduces threats they feel more shocking. Simply put, Men doesn’t need to lean on jump scares. What Garland puts on the screen is far more disturbing.
This is a beautifully and precisely filmed movie where every shot feels purposeful and perfectly framed.
Like Midsommar, Men doesn’t overindulge in graphic horror and violence. But when Garland goes down that path it’s instantly impactful. Once the third act rolls around, Men delivers intensity as Garland introduces some grotesque body horror. Audiences may not always know what’s going on, but they’re not likely to forget it. Holding everything together is Jessie Buckley’s performance as ‘Harper’. It’s a subtle but powerful performance that casts light on all the various ways in women are traumatized by male violence and how that trauma manifests. Even if the finale is ambiguous, Buckley invests ‘Harper’ with a sad resignation to the madness around her that at least lends some earned emotion to Men.
Men is a Dense Maze of Themes That May Prove Inaccessible to Wider Audiences
Somewhere in Men is a social commentary on misogyny. It’s right there in the title of the movie itself and follows right on through to its casting. In addition to Buckley, Rory Kinnear (Black Mirror) plays several different male characters all of whom terrorize Buckley’s ‘Harper’ to varying degrees. Aside from his excellent performance(s), Kinnear’s multiple roles are likely intended to symbolize the various forms of abuse Paapa Essidu’s ‘James’ subjects Harper to in flashbacks. From Geoffrey’s ‘polite’ dismissals to the vicar’s gaslighting to the more physically intrusive ‘Naked Man’, Kinnear embodies the different faces of misogyny. Among the movie’s many themes, Garland better fleshes this one out. In particular, Garland employs visual metaphors in the climax – including each of Kinnear’s characters exhibiting the same injuries as Harper’s dead husband – that are hard to miss.
While film scholars will love it, Garland asks a lot from most moviegoers.
Where Men becomes almost inaccessible is the volume and depth of its subtext and themes. Arguably, Garland tries to do much as he lobs enough imagery and ideas to fill its own films studies course. Even its ‘evil that men do theme’ becomes increasingly layered in its meaning as Kinnear’s abusers literally ‘give birth’ to one another. And Garland’s final shot holds some ambiguous relationship to this theme. On top of this idea, however, Men includes recurring images of dandelions and ‘The Green Man’ folk legend. In a later scene, the vicar quotes from WB Yeats’ Leda and the Swan. Each of these images and bits of dialogue likely connects to Men’s overall message. Garland is nothing if not a meticulous filmmaker. While film scholars will love it, Garland asks a lot from most moviegoers.
Men Is Haunting and Challenging in Equal Measures
Garland’s Men is a beautifully filmed, complex, and haunting entry in the folk horror subgenre. Yet it’s also a psychological horror movie that will prove inaccessible to most audiences. Just the sheer amount of symbolism Garland weaves into his narrative becomes overwhelming. Film studies classes salivate over Men, but anyone just looking for an intelligent, unnerving horror movie may walk away feeling detached from the finale. There’s no denying that this is an unnerving piece of horror. Garland grabs your attention and holds it to the closing frame. Still it’s hard not to feel like this is a movie that would have benefitted from a bit more thematic focus.