In the wake of a deeply personal tragedy, Harper (Jessie Buckley) heads to a “dream house” in the English countryside. The village in which it resides is a quaint and tight-knit community; Harper’s landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) refers to it as the kind of place where you can leave your door unlocked. Harper puts forth a quiet exterior when in interaction with the residents of the village, the majority being men (all of whom are ALSO played by Rory Kinnear), but in private, we see she is very clearly suffering from tremendous feelings of guilt and trauma. Not least of those are a series of flashbacks to the traumatizing ordeal, which patiently reveals itself and its minutiae in this way. But even as she struggles to process the tragedy that has already befallen her, Harper begins to grow suspicious and distressed by the village’s residents.
Alex Garland is no stranger to telling psychologically-driven stories. His directorial debut, the sleek techno-thriller Ex Machina (2015), tells a story which articulates plenty of fascinating ideas about the human desire to control and enslave, our evolving relationship with technology, and the technological singularity. Garland’s intense focus on character is present in his other works as well, as is demonstrated in his 2018 sophomore effort Annihilation, and in other penned works of his such as the post-apocalyptic 28 Days Later (2002) and the space-odyssey-ing Sunshine (2007); these are captivating films whose real-life relevance and character writing takes priority over any genre-driven indulgences.
How fitting it is, then, that Garland’s third directed feature, the horror film Men, should have such a tragic setup for its lead character. Also considering it’s a horror movie with as tedious and baiting (and ironic) a title as ‘Men,’ it seems unlikely Garland had any interest in JUST scaring us in the first place… that’s hardly his style. Even with plenty of keyboard-warriors prematurely judging the film prior to its wide-release for its potential case of mansplaining (male writer/director describing women’s troubles), Men exceeded any expectations of its polarization; there doesn’t seem to be a general consensus on whether the film is good, bad, offensive, or otherwise.
That divisive nature really does stem from the way the story plays itself out. Although the plot starts out quite straightforward, the line between the film’s reality and allegory is gradually blurred… often to the point where you wonder if it was ever there in the first place. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything about Men that’s inherently offensive, but it’s easy to see how different interpretations can yield different levels of provocation.
And really, Men is a film that is very open to interpretation… it doesn’t put the puzzle together for you, and it’s certainly possible that you don’t need every little piece to come to your own meaning anyway. Keeping that in mind, there’s a LOT to take in here, and it hardly seems like all Garland planned to do with the film is a nonchalant mansplain-ism of “women have it tuff sometimes.” He’s a lot of things, but he’s not a lazy filmmaker. There’s plenty of biblical imagery at play, particularly that which pertains to the story of Adam and Eve; there also seems to be attention given to male gaslighting and self-victimization; lastly, there’s certainly an emphasis on genetic and patriarchal patterns as well.
Men is one of the few films for which I can genuinely understand everyone’s opinion of it, whether they loved it or despised it. Personally, I found it to be wonderfully provocative and distressing in an abstract fashion that Garland has demonstrated a real talent for. It may not be the most frightening horror movie of recent years, but it’ll certainly get you thinking.
Overall rating: 8/10