Warning: this Men review contains spoilers. Alex Garland holdouts, beware.
Alex Garland is no stranger to the abstract and uncanny. The horror hallmarks that crept into his previous work have now bled out into his latest film, Men. Surreal and visceral, this folk-horror tale delivers a harrowing depiction of memory as shape-shifting and somatic.
We hover alongside Harper Marlowe, played by the captivating Jessie Buckley, as she turns to the remote countryside to heal after the death of her manipulative husband (Paapa Essiedu). By pivoting back and forth between her sickly-hued past and Harper’s haunted present, Garland renders Harper’s grief digressive. It’s a conventional approach, but, with each bridged memory, we witness Harper work toward reclamation.
Marked with an apple tree in the garden and a grand piano in the conservatory, the “dream country house” to which Harper retreats feels warm and welcoming (once the clingy neighbor finally leaves). However, her solitude is repeatedly disrupted by the many men surrounding the estate. Whether they be assault, weaponized doubt, resentment, or exposure, the violations, much like their perpetrators, take on many forms.
Rory Kinnear does a tremendous job personifying maliciousness, as he steps into the role of every male character. While these men – and a nine-year-old asshole – may share the same face (and yes, Rory Kinnear also plays the young asshole), it is their eyes that strike the difference. Similar to Rob Hardy’s floating cinematography, the transferable appearance that mutates across and through each of the men feels immaterial and uncomfortable – especially for a genre so often devoted to identifiable looks. Men shines a spotlight on the assaultive gaze, both within film form and everyday life: the camera floats among the foliage and traces a concealed point of view, the neighbor’s polite charade, a child’s plastic mask, even the hidden intentions of a vicar’s Roman collar.
My favorite sequence of the entire film takes place during Harper’s hot-girl walk into the woods. After stumbling upon a dark and damp tunnel, Harper does what anyone would do in a horror film: she starts to explore. Shouting into the tunnel, Harper layers her echoing voice and creates a melody of reflected identity. It’s a playful moment and a striking musical cue that leads to fear as a silhouetted figure steps into view. As the figure begins to run in Harper’s direction, we witness Harper’s own voice and innocent amusement mutate into self-betrayal as it calls attention to her vulnerability. With this, the silhouette continues to rush forward and Harper starts to flee. The scene cuts to a stable shot in the woods and we see an out-of-focus figure running toward the camera. It’s unclear whether we’re watching Harper running toward refuge or the stalking figure chasing us down. The shot’s shallow focus makes for a fantastic exercise in dread and it wasn’t until Harper’s shape filled the frame that I realized I was holding my breath. Predicted on unsettled perception and meticulous directing, the scene is the antithesis of a jump scare.
Men finds its strength in these imaginative distortions and collaborations. When Harper’s solitude is twisted into vulnerable isolation by the many embodiments of evil, the estate’s initial allure twists into something much more smothering and malevolent. These distortions are founded in the incredibly unsettling score by Garland’s frequent collaborators Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrows (who also worked on the found-footage series Archive 81, RIP). Layered with chilling choral arrangements and reverberations of Harper’s voice, Men’s score is rooted in collision. Salisbury and Barrows’ work is a spectacular feat and complements the extraordinary imagery that overtakes the final act.
And what a final act it is. Alex Garland’s filmography consistently underlines his preoccupation with abstraction, embodiment, and horrific entanglements, but Men’s culmination transforms these impulses into a fully-formed, confrontational anomaly. It’s almost impossible to comment on the final scenes without giving them away – but here goes. One by one, through grotesque transformation, the men give birth to one another. The sequence begins with the Green Man stumbling naked toward Harper, his ankle broken and his abdomen expanding beyond his natural frame. The swelling man gives birth to the young brat, who then folds over to deliver the abhorrent vicar, followed by the neighbor, and then, finally, Harper’s late husband.
It is an unpleasant perversion of the most natural event, and a commentary on the generational links between and cyclical nature of toxic behavior. It is unlike anything I have ever seen or even remotely expected, and yet, in retrospect, it is distinctly Garland. The birthing sequence will have you side-eyeing the person in the seat next to you, even if it’s a stranger, to confirm they are witnessing the same thing. You might even whisper (or, like me, scribble in your notes) What the fuck?
Men is an amalgamation of glaring references and often feels crowded with iconography, but perhaps that’s the point. The violent and gendered references – Eve in the Garden of Eden, Leda and The Swan – saturate the story; but, like the hostile men who stalk, blame, and abuse, these references, in the end, are traced from the same design.
However, despite this attempt at redemption, Garland’s referential tendencies weigh down the film and overshadow the haunting shape of dread. Similarly, Buckley appears to be our anchor, but she still feels undefined and anonymous in a crowd of men. Despite leaning in the direction of materialized memory, Garland ultimately – and excessively – buries the film in subtext rather than let that materialization creep into view.
Anyway: back to the good stuff. Men has all the makings of an effective horror film: haunting camerawork, unnerving cues resembling screams, and flesh that rips apart. In terms of genre conventions, Men is distinctly horrific, yet throughout its 100-minute runtime it still finds ways to tear open preconceived sutures in order to regenerate expectations. Overall, it is a minimal story that evolves into an allegorical and abject echo that crystallizes patriarchal toxicity.
Men is in theaters now.