Director: Alex Garland
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, and Gayle Rankin
Cinematographer: Rob Hardy
About 20 minutes into Alex Garland’s intensely unsettling feature, Men, Harper (Jessie Buckley) pants a melody into a long dark tunnel at a beautiful English countryside get-away. As the echoes traverse the underpass, a sense of relief and a genuine joy overtakes her. It’s the first sign of healing since an untimely personal tragedy left her with overwhelming guilt and sorrow. Minutes later, however, a man chases Harper through the tunnel, setting the stage for the unnerving experience she’d soon face and foreshadowing the inability to escape a traumatic past.
We as fans of film hear all the time that movies are “visual mediums.” That certainly holds true for Men as director and writer Alex Garland capitalizes on flashes of imagery to emphasize themes of trauma, healing, and rebirth. But as beautiful as these visual cues are, most of them felt empty, overdone, and leaned a little bit on the pretentious side for me.
Throughout this 100-minute terror fest, he makes it a point to highlight the toxicity of men in general. Garland uses flashbacks of James (Paapa Essiedu), Harper’s ex-husband, to demonstrate manipulation tactics. And then there are the many forms of Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), who gaslights Harper throughout her stay at the countryside. Whatever the focus, Garland recognizes and understands that men can be dangerous and impervious to consequence when it comes to how they treat women.
What should traditionally be elegant commentary on a very-real problem, Men just scratches the surface on what it could have been. And it was frustrating, to say the least. Every visual cue or flashback felt both over-the-top and underwhelmingly insufficient. It’s understandable how Harper, played by the ever-convincing Jessie Buckley, would see a piece of her husband in every man she met after such a tragedy. It’s also noteworthy to point out that every man who haunts her thereafter are a form of Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear)- unbeknownst to Harper. But it gives rise to the question of “are all men the same?”
The resounding answer to that question should be a confident ‘NO.’ But Garland sees no point in entertaining the question even though he brought it up visually. For me, taking that stance cheapens the effect of every single interaction with each Geoffrey derivative. Furthermore, it lessens the impact of what he tried to accomplish by the film’s end.
Speaking of the film’s end [the last 30 minutes, let’s say], I must admit that I was glued to the screen as Geoffrey’s ‘rebirth of toxicity’ spread across the theater screen. I’m no stranger or hater of body horror or gore, so this was a pleasant surprise for me. However, the ending of Men is lazy. It’s not lost on me how the constant rebirths of the story’s villain are meant to represent how toxic masculinity can be passed from generation to generation. But I have to question why Garland would spend nearly 80 minutes showcasing the toxicity of men in its highest form(s) just to give an answer that doesn’t match reality. It comes off irrational, lazy, and quite frankly, excusatory.
Despite the problems I had with the film, there are reasons I would watch Men again. For one, the performances from Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear are incredible. If this was meant to be an experimental acting showcase for the two, this was a job well done. Kinnear is convincingly terrorizing through his somewhat innocent moments all the way through his intently menacing ones. As for Jessie, she absolutely nails the ending. She’s a woman who has experienced men at their most harmful – to the point at which the habitual behavior becomes boring and/or numbing more so than it is scary.
Ultimately, Men is the kind of film that left me feeling frustrated. It’s mostly because I felt that too much happened while simultaneously nothing of substance happened at all. Whether this was intentional by director Garland is a question I may never get the answer to. But the themes explored throughout this feature are certainly ones that will keep audiences talking.
Check out the trailer for Alex Garland’s Men. The A24 feature film is in theaters now (May 20, 2022)!