Over the past decade, filmmaker Alex Garland has established himself as one of the most ambitious and inventive storytellers in the world of sci-fi cinema, thanks to projects like Dredd, Ex Machina, and Annihilation. Each film explores a different corner of the genre, which allows them to all feel uniquely compelling in their respective realms. Garland has once again attempted to explore a new corner of the genre with his latest film Men, which pivots away from sci-fi and more towards abject horror, while still denying the audience the opportunity to define it within categorized constraints. Both its terrors of a home invasion and its allegories for gendered trauma work independently of one another, yet the blend of these themes results in an experience that feels like two distinct and unrelated films as opposed to one fulfilling experience.
In hopes of recovering from trauma she suffered with her husband, Harper (Jessie Buckley) rents out an old home in a quaint English village, with that peace being interrupted by an unwelcome intruder. Despite some initial relief, this kicks off a nightmarish spiral, bringing to life some of Harper's worst fears.
Though the overall experience fails to offer a cohesive or fulfilling journey, there's a lot about Men that works, with its biggest successes being performances by Buckley and Rory Kinnear. Almost the entire picture rests on the shoulders of Buckley, as she effectively delivers a nuanced and grounded performance that feels tortured without ever making Harper appear incapable of handling herself. Unlike other horror films, the audience won't question Harper's motives or how she could be making such rash decisions, as she refuses to be reckless in any number of scenarios. Kinnear similarly delivers a number of nuanced performances, as he's tasked with bringing various figures to life, all of which are done with sophistication and subtlety, offering the slightest of quirks from one another as to never venture into the realm of being caricatures to make the differences easy to distinguish. However, Kinnear's contributions are also what kick off the movie's setbacks.
Much of the first half of the film sees Harper interacting with Kinnear's groundskeeper character, with one exception being the presumed invader, whose identity is often obscured. As Harper explores the town, she encounters a number of other male characters, all of which are played by Kinnear and look just like him. Viewers will instantly notice the likenesses, yet Harper never makes mention of those similarities. While we might think Harper handled a possible intruder adequately, her lack of acknowledgment about meeting multiple identical strangers immediately ignites the film's foray into another tonal realm.
With Dredd, which Garland wrote and is said to have contributed to substantially as a director, we're given a relatively straightforward piece of sci-fi action. With Annihilation, Garland used metaphors of exploring an alien ecosystem to unearth the damage of emotional trauma as well as the power of accepting and evolving past it. Men instead delivers two narrative concepts that explore similar storytelling territory to its predecessors, yet results in a movie that feels entirely bifurcated. Garland manages to use unsettling imagery to unease the audience with its home invasion motifs, both in its visual and narrative staging. We feel genuine fear for Harper, knowing her vulnerability, and the tension is carefully elevated. Rivaling the effectiveness of the home-invasion elements is Garland's use of Kinnear in multiple roles to explore a wide spectrum of misogynistic personalities, which are sometimes internalized and subtle while other times are overt and obnoxious.
Of the two themes, it's the depictions of all of the ways in which Harper is insulted, condescended, shamed, manipulated, and embarrassed by the male figures in her life that are the more resonant. By having Kinnear play all of Harper's nameless harassers, it creates a unifying experience in which his visage represents the ingrained patriarchy and all of its worst manifestations. Flashbacks to Harper's history with her husband and the trauma suffered at his hands only strengthen this message, serving as a truly harrowing reminder of how deeply ingrained misogyny is in countless cultures. It's an impossible task to watch Men and not be reminded of an experience you've either personally had yourself or were witness to that resembles the disturbing encounters unfolding onscreen, without Garland feeling as though he's trying to paint in broad strokes. Additionally, the back half of the film has some of the most disturbing and grotesque bodily imagery put on film this year, including one of the most viscerally upsetting injuries to an appendage of all time.
The biggest fault of the film is that the shift from home-invasion horror to ethereal explorations of institutionalized misogyny feels more like going from one episode of an anthology TV show to another. Both halves of the film work independently of one another and, other than the narrative premise expediting the effectiveness of the scenario, arguably would have been more effective as standalone stories. Of course, were they isolated stories and if Men was arbitrarily split right down the middle, the home-invasion vignette would end on an underwhelming note and the manifestation of emotional trauma would feel hollow without having witnessed Harper's journey to get to that situation. The issue is instead that the first half doesn't foreshadow enough of the existential elements while the back half sacrifices some of the real-world terror in favor of those metaphorical encounters.
Even with its various shortcomings, Men still feels like a success, as it will hopefully ask the audience to look inward towards how their own grief manifests and how they might enable, or fallen victim to, the cycles of abuse. Garland continues to prove himself as a truly singular voice in sci-fi, so even with some stumbles, his latest effort is still both thought-provoking and full of visceral terror that delivers viewers more than they bargained for.0comments
Rating: 3 out of 5
Men lands in theaters on May 20th.