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Yes, all ‘Men’

May 23, 2022
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Good horror movies find ways to scare you. Great horror movies dig into why you’re scared. And the very best horror movies use well-executed scares and the thoughtfully-explored reasons behind them to comment on larger ideas and issues.

Misogyny and its impact are often found front and center in horror movies. From the very beginning, horror has displayed an awareness of the underlying societal struggle of women, though not always in a positive way – many films, particularly early on, exploited and weaponized the perceived cultural shortcomings of women, taking unsavory advantage of the power imbalance. That said, we have seen a more nuanced approach from some genre filmmakers as the years have passed. Not across the board, mind you – there are still plenty of reductive, regressive creators out there – but it’s better now than it was.

That brings me to “Men,” the new film from writer/director Alex Garland. The genre auteur has crafted a stunning and unsettling piece, one that burrows into the misogyny – both external and internal – with which women are too often confronted, all set against a deceptively idyllic backdrop whose bleakness can only be seen (at least at first) lurking in the shadows. Physical shadows, yes … but also shadows of the psyche.

Garland’s propensity for idiosyncratic and intense visuals is in full effect, counterbalancing the pastoral countryside with a lurid sinisterness lurking just beneath the surface. Rich and vivid and visceral, “Men” has a look that matches the conflicted chaos that lies at the heart of its unconventional narrative.

Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has made her way to the English village of Coston on holiday; she’s still struggling to deal with the aftermath of the death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) – a death that may have been suicide, if his threats to her in the face of impending divorce are to be taken literally. She’s seeking some semblance of peace and hopes to find it while staying in a quaintly elegant home owned by an eccentric fellow named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear).

Her pursuit of peace is quickly upended, however, when she goes for a walk in the woods. At one point, she sees a mysterious man at the other end of a long tunnel; he runs toward her, so she flees. As she makes her way back to the house, she encounters a naked man inexplicably standing in a field. After she gets home, the naked man follows her; she calls the authorities, who come to get him.

Harper explores the town, visiting a nearby church. She’s belittled and cursed at by a young boy. A vicar appears and offers her counsel, only to indicate that she is to blame for the actions of her late husband. She heads to the pub, where she encounters – among others – the cop that arrested the naked intruder; he tells her that they released the man.

This is where I tell you that every man that Harper encounters in Coston looks like Rory Kinnear. Geoffrey, the vicar, the young boy, the bartender at the pub, the mysterious intruder – every single one of them has the same face, a fact that is never acknowledged. In fact, the only man in the film who does NOT have Kinnear’s face is Harper’s husband, as we see in interspersed flashbacks to the events leading up to his death, punctuating her frightening experience in the present with the terrors of the past.

All of these men, malevolently demanding something unclear from Harper. And with no idea what’s happening or who she can trust, the only one who can help her … is her.

Tonally and thematically, “Men” is a logical step in Alex Garland’s progression as a filmmaker. These ideas have been central to previous films like “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” – his fascination with the nature of identity and the role that trauma can play in the evolution of that identity is a hallmark of his work, though he’s never gone quite this far before.

By removing Harper’s agency while granting her the illusion of agency, Garland has deftly illustrated the dilemma faced by so many women in today’s world, the idea that the expectations of the system are lined up firmly and fully against them. And this idea that, in the end, all men are the beneficiaries of that system – expressed so brilliantly by the omnipresence of Kinnear – encapsulates the horror of Harper’s circumstances.

Garland’s grisly sensibility when it comes to more visceral visual storytelling is front and center as well; early in the film, the moments are occasional, leaning more into the suspenseful and mysterious elements of folk horror, but by the end, we arrive at a final act that is driven by one of the more unsettling and off-putting stretches of body horror that I’ve seen in ages.

As I considered this film in the days after seeing it, the same point of comparison kept arising: Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” “Men” is also an extended visual metaphor, vividly and viscerally presented. Garland’s film has a bit more narrative cohesion, while Aronofsky leans harder into the straight-up allegorical, but the two films share a clear goal of developing ideas and are less concerned with the intricacies of plot. Again, two fairly different movies, but ones that share some deeply fundamental similarities.

Buckley is phenomenal, one of only a few actresses who could handle the many demands placed on them by this role. She is vulnerable and conflicted, but also carries herself with a degree of self-possession that grounds Harper in even her most fearful moments. A tremendous performer who continues to excel as she challenges herself with the roles she selects. Kinnear crushes it as well, though it’s tough to explain just how good he is. His perpetual presence is scary, to be sure, but he finds ways to translate his personal intensity through different lenses depending on who he is at the time. Meanwhile, Essiedu appears only in flashback and Gayle Rankin (as Harper’s sister) shows up almost exclusively via FaceTime. It feels weird to call this a two-hander, but in a lot of fundamental ways, it absolutely is.

“Men” is a challenging film, one definitely not for the faint of heart. It delves deep into horror’s complicated history with women, offering a twisted exploration of the underlying misogyny that has haunted the genre for generations. It is evocative and off-putting, unpleasant and utterly unsettling. It’s the sort of movie that you don’t often see … and you probably won’t see twice.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 23 May 2022 11:11

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