A24’s Creepy ‘Men’ Likely to Confound Viewers
Men is only the third feature film directed by Alex Garland, but his creativity and innovative nature in the first two (Ex Machina, 2014 and Annihilation, 2018) established him as a writer-director to follow. His latest is certainly deserving of those descriptions, yet it’s also less assessable while being more open to interpretation and worthy of discussion. Reactions from viewers are sure to be varied.
Jessie Buckley, one of the finest actors working today, takes on the lead role in yet another of her unconventional projects. We absolutely respect and admire her risk-taking, and each project benefits from her presence. Some of her recent work includes The Lost Daughter (2021), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), Wild Rose (2018), and a great arc in the “Fargo” television series. Here she stars as Harper, a Londoner heading to holiday in the English countryside after the death of her husband. When she arrives at her bucolic Airbnb manor, the serenity is apparent right up until she meets Geoffrey, the landlord. He’s played by Rory Kinnear (Tanner in the James Bond movies, and excellent in the “Penny Dreadful” series and its spinoff). Geoffrey’s awkward social skills involve colloquialisms and country charm to ensure that Harper knows she’s no longer in London.
The country manor is walking distance to town (which apparently consists of a church and pub), and sits alongside a forest, seemingly perfect for nature hikes. Harper’s first walk in the woods has a fascinating scene as she experiments with the echoes of a tunnel by singing notes in harmony with herself. This simple pleasure ends when she notices a nude man apparently stalking her. After calling the local police, she heads to the church where she encounters a rude boy and a vicar who is unsympathetic to her plight. All of these interactions could fit into an interesting story, but filmmaker Garland takes things to another level. Geoffrey, the stalker, the cop, and the vicar are all played by Rory Kinnear…even the boy! Later, we see that Kinnear even plays the pub’s clientele. Since it’s obvious to us, and she doesn’t seem to notice, we can assume this is a major clue for how we are to interpret what’s happening with (and to) Harper.
Flashbacks are employed so that we are able to piece together the strained relationship between Harper and her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Her emotional turmoil plays into what’s happening during this rural getaway meant for relaxation, yet often this has a surreal or dreamlike feel, making it challenging to know what is real or what she is imagining. Harper holds the occasional FaceTime with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), and the broken signal on these calls may or may not be real…like so much of what we see. Garland’s third act goes a bit bonkers, and includes some icky body horror effects, a la Cronenberg. The mythology of sheela na gig and the Green Man are part of the numerous uses of symbolism throughout.
The film is beautiful to look at thanks to the cinematography of Rob Hardy, and the frequent use of vibrant green jumps off the screen during many scenes. The atmosphere created is primed for something that may or may not pay off by the end, but it’s certainly another artsy creep-fest in the A24 universe. Ms. Buckley proves again what a talent she is, and Mr. Kinnear joins Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove), among others, in mastering multiple roles. Lesley Duncan’s spiritual and melancholic “Love Song” is the perfect accompaniment for Harper’s drive, and Kinnear’s frequently appearing face enhances the myth that men are all the same – a constant threat lurking for women. Folk horror resurgence continues, and viewers will have to decide if they can reconcile the abundance of symbolism.