It’s not the echoing silence against the green, Edinburgh clime. Nor the shrouds of grief. Nor the shades of waning self belief that concerns Alex Garland. Rather Men, the sleek, unmoored psychological folk horror from the writer/director, operates on a different, far more confounding (though the director might say, incorrectly, complex) level.
It arrives at a precarious, urgent time: Reproductive rights in America haven’t been under this much stress since Roe v Wade first entered the halls of the Supreme Court. And though Garland’s film takes place in Scotland, it’s easy to map its concerns onto ours when Harper (Jessie Buckley) – following the death by suicide of her boyfriend James (Paapa Essiedu) – arrives to a cozy, secluded cottage to heal and recharge, only to discover a series of pernicious patriarchal specters vying for her attention. Timeliness, however, does not immediately make a good movie. And apart from the moment of this film’s appearance, carrying with it two fascinating performances, Men comes up about as short as the spelling of its name.
Questions concerning masculinity and the strain its toxicity puts upon women have always wound their way through Garland’s introspective cinematic language. His previous works Ex Machina and Annihilation thrum with the answers to those questions causing a disintegration of the protagonist’s identity amid their paradisal surroundings.
Men maneuvers through similar thematic pathways, offering a seismic invitation in its opening seconds: Harper leans against her kitchen counter in her luxe flat. Beneath the tangerine lighting enveloping the space, a smear of blood beneath her nose is perceptible. And as she looks toward her sweeping windows she sees boyfriend’s body falling in slow-motion toward his death. For the briefest of moments they make eye contact, screaming for different reasons. The reason for her boyfriend’s sudden plunge looms over the entire narrative, haunting Harper in every waking moment, and even in her dreams. Its guilt and trauma follows her to a secluded cottage in the woods, flanked by an apple orchard, which tempts her to take a bite. Every unexplainable event that happens afterward stem from the tasting of this forbidden fruit, and similar to Annihilation, imbues Men with religious undertones amid lush Edenic landscapes.
Garland’s interrogation of misogyny finds its stride through the interpersonal interplay between Harper and Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the owner of the house Harper is renting. Kinnear plays Geoffrey as acutely awkward and subversily funny, a man so enamored with his own humor the joke is him thinking his own jokes are witty. To Harper, he’s an amusing oddball, harmless, maybe, even when he chides her about eating forbidden fruit. During these scenes, Buckley zigs when you expect her to zag, a talent that’s served her well playing closed off, idiosyncratic characters trapped in situations you don’t expect their intelligence would lead them toward, but takes them nonetheless. In Harper she carves contours of guarded bliss and open play, and fierce resilience that dance on the edges mounting of threats.
If you’ve seen the trailer to Men, then you know Kinnear plays several distinct characters, each more bracing than the last. One is a naked stalker living in the woods. Harper calls the police. And yet, when the police apprehend him, it’s the woman officer who calms Harper by explaining his harmlessness. The cop is the lone character who doesn’t look like Kinnear, a curious choice. One assumes Garland wants to point out the culpability of women in law enforcement as perpetrators of patriarchal systems, but it plays too heavy-handedly. A similar problem arises as Harper meets other versions of Geoffrey, with a lurid vicar being the most prominent. Garland couples this leering vicar, who blames Harper’s mere existence for his arousal, with the iconography of the apple to tease out the systems used to govern women’s bodies through religious guilt.
Garland has always used the human body as a landscape to plot horror and misogyny. Here, as the signs for leaving mount — more Geoffrey lookalikes follow Harper, the phone signal mysteriously drops whenever Harper tries to tell a supportive friend her location, the naked stalker is released — a nighttime freakout rains blood and carcasses throughout her quaint surroundings. The showdown, without spoiling, is a body horror-led treatise on childbirth and original sin featuring gnarly practical effects as spines crack and contort, and orifices become the sites of moral judgment. While the confrontations provide magnificent, unadulterated gore and a measure of catharsis, it’s another inelegant message about the politics concerning women’s physical autonomy and the toxic interests and mechanisms men use to control it that falls flat.
Men feels colder than Garland’s previous work. Ex Machina and Annihilation offered greater interiority to their protagonists, and firmer actualizations of their inner fears. How Garland coheres Harper’s trauma over her boyfriend’s death and the frights delivered by each malicious version of Kinnear’s characters barely fit together as one larger manifestation of a smaller void, and find even less intelligence in the emotional beats they’re meant to fill. Instead, Men, a film too impressed with its own simplistic spectacle, whimpers toward a limp conclusion, having revealed nothing more than gore.
“Men” is in theaters Friday.