Alex Garland is a writer and director who isn’t happy with delivering straightforward, easy-to-access cinema. With films like Ex-Machina and Annihilation on his CV, he pushes the boundaries of movie making with visually stunning treats and mind-blowing storytelling. Now comes his latest, Men, a modern-day horror fairy tale that, like his previous films, is beautiful, brimming with tension and unease, and following the same traditions of movies The Wicker Man and Midsommar, yet this time, sadly, leaves you feeling unsatisfied.
Harper is a woman escaping from a tragedy in her life to an idyllic country retreat. In a quiet village, she rents a country estate owned by the slight eccentric Geoffrey. As she settles into her new surroundings while walking to a disused train tunnel, she attracts the attention of a strange naked man, who follows her home. Harper finds that this village is far from idyllic, but the men who live there are not who they seem.
Garland’s film starts off shockingly, as a bloody nosed Harper watches a figure falling past her London window. This tragedy starts the woman on a journey to escape the city for the lush, green country. Green is the key word here, as Garland ups the colour palette with bluebells being bright blue against the grass with an almost unnatural hue. She describes her temporary home as a dream, which is what Garland is after. The garden has an apple tree that stands alone and bursts with the fruit. Could this be the fruit of temptation?
Yet this fairy tale world slowly turns into a living nightmare as Harper becomes a victim of the naked stalker and memories of events in London. While she has her friend on the end of a phone, the village men don’t seem to be helpful. The local policeman seems quite matter-of-fact when he announces that the naked man has been released to roam the area again; there’s a young boy who verbally abuses Harper and a vicar who is just creepy. Only Geoffrey seems to be the one man who doesn’t act out of character, although his eccentric behaviour doesn’t seem that odd.
As the film heads towards its final act, Garland twists the tension even further with a scene set around the house with security lights on and off, revealing the various men appearing and disappearing. This final part of the film goes into overdrive with more body horror than eerie terror. Sadly the ambiguousness of the early part of the film descends into shocks as the men’s connections become apparent in a sequence that will disgust. It doesn’t work because it leaves Harper’s character left watching but not answering her questions. Reminiscent of the Jennifer Lawrence film, mother! this leaves you just as baffled as to what it all meant.
Thankfully the two leads are outstanding. As Harper, Jessie Buckley, who seems to never put a foot wrong, captures a troubled woman with ease. She is mesmerising throughout, capturing a woman’s emotional journey with ease. What would generally be a role of a victim, Buckley brings depth to the part that shows she is one of this country’s brightest acting talents. Taking on the role of all the men in the village, Rory Kinnear is magnificent. Each character is given a different persona that you sometimes forget you are watching the same man playing each part. It’s a tour-de-force from an actor who is allowed to shine.
Men is intriguing, unsettling, shocking, and a visual treat, with two dream performances. An adult fairy tale that is not for the faint-hearted. Yet as you watch the horror, you feel that this tale should have delivered much more than it did.
3 out of 5
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin, Sarah Twomey
Written by: Alex Kinnear
Running Time: 100 mins
Release date: 1st June 2022