Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu
With exceedingly lamentable timing, Alex Garland’s Men lands the same week as the culmination of a certain world-famous trial, the verdict of which will set back women’s agency with domestic abuse claims by decades. The effect, one assumes, will be to make Garland’s staggering faceplant of wishy-washy folk horror seem gravely pertinent. In actuality it’s a scattergun mess; the kind of wholesale failure from a well-regarded creative that makes one stand back and whisper, “Wow…”.
Kind of like a deeply disappointed Owen Wilson.
Having argued over separating in their Thames-facing flat, the abusive and mentally unstable James (Paapa Essiedu; awful) lamps his wife Harper (Jessie Buckley). She promptly throws him out only to watch in horror as he leaps/falls to his death outside their balcony window. Wrestling with the complex emotional fallout of this series of events, Harper absconds to a tiny hamlet in the Gloucestershire countryside, renting a lavish house from plummy local resident Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). Their meeting and his clumsy, jovial tour represent the highpoint in the film.
Keen to explore her new surroundings, Harper goes on a wander, encountering an abandoned railway tunnel where she enjoys bouncing her voice back and forth. This – seemingly – conjures from nowhere another Rory Kinnear; naked, entwined with roots and foliage. Harper retreats but the figure follows. Returning to the village, it seems every man in this town is another iteration of Kinnear. Is it inbreeding? Cloning? Some weird folk magic as cackhandedly alluded to in the village church? Harper is as baffled and irritated as we are.
Garland has taken onboard the #MeToo cycle (soon to be decimated) as well as the rise in popularity of allegorical horror films championed by A24 (their logo sits at the head of this one) and attempted to address the former through the viewfinder of the latter. His “all men are the same” visual metaphor is obvious. So much so that one quickly starts looking past it for the narrative mechanics that back it up.
There are none. One might argue that there’s no need for world-building, for explanations, for lore or background; the allegory itself is the point. Unfortunately, Men doesn’t have the clout for that. Garland’s material vagueness reads as lazy rather than ambiguous. It isn’t so much as though he’s considered the logistics of what’s on screen and chosen to obscure them. It plays as though they’ve never been given a second thought. The scant story doesn’t hold water, regardless of whether it’s all actually happening or merely a figment of Harper’s traumatised mind.
DP Rob Hardy ensures that Men looks the business; verdant greens contrast dusky tangerine skies quite beautifully, while production designer Mark Digby makes both the interior of Harper’s getaway and the scant locations around the village feel rich in detail and spooky potential, but other departments echo Garland clunkiness.
The VFX are distracting and poor. When Kinnear’s face is transplanted onto a child, it’s reminiscent of the uncanny valley aspects of Cats, except with all the fun removed. Similarly, giant CG dandelions and James’ slow-mo fall toward the London cobbles read as weightlessly false, throwing us wholesale out of the wobbly reality of the picture. The same sense of disconnect occurs throughout thanks to the score. Garland works again with Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, who did him so well on Annihilation. Their efforts here are fine, but they’re too big for the film, deafening entire sequences which become wholly about their non-diegetic music. This occurs over and over.
Buckley and Kinnear are plenty game, but there’s simply not enough surrounding them to support their efforts. Still, for an hour or so the mystery of Men is enough to keep it’s motor running. It’s only when the sinking feeling that none of this will add up to anything builds and consumes the viewer that the engine gives out. The final 15 minutes will likely become the most talked about. Garland swings for the fences with a (seemingly endless) succession of weird visual revelations. The aim is clearly to be thought of alongside such genre names as Aster or Miike. The achievement is something briefly comic then wearying as it goes on and on and on, finally birthing an unearned, ineffective and rather dubious “not all men” moment before the film breathes its last. Or maybe not. Garland’s ultimate intention feels confused and lost in all the shock tactics.
There’s something admirable about trying in earnest to create something intended to divide and baffle audiences. To “do a mother!” (as I may immediately stop calling it). That was a film that provoked strong reactions. I came out of the first screening reeling at Aronofsky’s sadistic indulgence. It was only later that it became an itch I couldn’t scratch and I turned 180 on the film when I tackled it again.
I cannot imagine the same happening with Men though. It’s both try-hard and incredibly flimsy. A set of Russian dolls of a movie; each reveal presenting a smaller version of it’s initial idea, each as hollow as the last. It stings, also, that this folly is getting such a wide UK cinema release (over 300 screens) when Garland’s last, Annihilation, was swept under the rug for streaming (ironically because Paramount blanched at the reaction to mother!).
This level of failure can only make what comes next interesting, however. Garland’s banked enough good graces already to allow for one great clanger like this. Whether he’ll survive two is another matter. Thanks to it’s blanket distribution Men is likely to make it’s money back and be considered – on those terms – a success, so who knows what lessons will be learned?
Ultimately decide for yourself, of course, but be prepared for something both testing and gun-shy. An odd, unsatisfying and annoying mix.
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