All questions and no answers make Men a dull film.
Haunted by the recent death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu), Harper (Jessie Buckley) splurges on a two-week English cottage rental to get away from the world and collect herself. She encounters groundskeeper Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a throwback gent who appears to mean well but can’t seem to keep his misogynistic opinions to himself, absently muttered under his breath. After checking in via video chat with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), Harper takes a walk to familiarize herself with the old grounds and surrounding countryside, finally alone and feeling at peace. Her solitude is shattered when an unclothed man begins following her through the woods, but he is only the first in a string of presumed locals bearing a disturbing resemblance to one another, each finding unique ways to express unprovoked contempt toward Harper…
Writer Alex Garland often champions women’s agency in his directorial works — Ex Machina and Annihilation — and in his screenplays such as the criminally underrated Dredd. His latest film is his most intimate by far, focusing on a lone woman recovering from a bad relationship only for things to turn worse. There must be an intelligent reason why all the men resemble a single person — other than Rory Kinnear merely playing all of those parts — and why each new encounter builds upon one another to increase Harper’s dread, right? By the third act, elements of slasher films and body horror are introduced, escalating mundane meetings into twisted episodes rife with disturbing symbolism. What’s Garland trying to say with all of this, and how long will audiences endure unanswered questions to find out?
The how isn’t the problem in Men — those are the interesting parts of the production — it’s the why of it. The narrative is constructed to terrorize and traumatize Harper, but to what end? Understanding? Accepting an undesirable fate? Self-reflection? As an A24 film, advertising suggests folk horror akin to Lamb or MidSommar, but the story beats follow a typical haunting or ghost story: tragic circumstance, spooky goings on, and discovery with a resolution. In a film where misogyny is ever-present, the character of Harper is inexplicably relegated to a powerless witness in the final act, denied fight or flight while forced to endure, as ineffective as Dr. Jones raiding a lost ark. Worse yet, the main character doesn’t appear to be in any real danger, which also undermines her agency. As primal fear morphs into morbid fascination, Men yanks down the curtain suspending disbelief and shreds it; the plot points are one long beating of the same dead horse until it feels like a waste of time, Eyes Wide Shut with a side of body horror. When the title logo flashes up at the end, all it’s missing is a comedic rim tap.
Can menfolk be pigs? Sure they can. Do women owe them time and attention when in their presence? Not even remotely. Garland parades Kinnear out in a montage of misogyny, inflicting what women unfortunately endure on a daily basis upon the entire audience under the guise of a horror film, but viewers who don’t already understand the bait-and-switch reveal sadly still won’t. All the cinematography and effects work that went into this production now won’t be used for something with a better script idea, and that’s the biggest crime of all. Viewers are introduced to Harper and James at the end of a relationship, but any details are rendered pointless by the time the credits roll because it was never about them; they’re nothing more than stand-ins.
Audiences familiar with A24 studio films might suspect Garland of borrowing elements from MidSommar, The Green Knight, and Hereditary, but what’s missing is context. The filmmakers have already weighed in on the ambiguous non-ending fallback — the old “what you think about our film says more about you than us” — but it undermines the film’s purpose for ever existing in the first place. Here’s a thought: what if someone made the movie advertised in a new and interesting way instead of using it as a smoke screen for something else, just to change things up?
Men is rated R for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images, language, and anyone with an aversion to childbirth.
One skull recommendation out of four