A voyage to the English countryside should harbor some much-needed solace for Haper. Instead, the widowed woman finds herself in a twisted nightmare of masculine gratification in writer/director Alex Garland’s latest Men.
Three features into his directorial career (four if you count Dredd, which he reportedly guided in an uncredited role), Garland continues displaying his distinctly withdrawn and meditative sensibility onscreen. It’s an approach that worked wonders with Ex Machina and Annihilation – two projects that intelligently wired isolation and despair into traditional science fiction framework. I was enraptured by both projects, with each displaying the cerebral undertones that modern sci-fi desperately lacks.
By comparison, Men confronts viewers in a more abrasive light. The straightforward title serves as a fitting representation of Garland’s streamlined thematic approach. Harper’s journey finds the abused widow surrounded by the overbearing presence she’s trying to escape. In place of her abusive deceased husband, a slew of bizarre caricatures with an oddly familiar face (each played by Rory Kinnear) confront Harper with the responsibility she “should” feel regarding his passing.
You can probably guess where the experience goes from here. Men paints itself as a reflection of the emotional burdens and objectification men place on their female counterparts. It’s clearly a timely concept, but Garland’s latest struggles in digging beneath the surface.
Every religious allegory and overwritten line lays the idealism on thick as Garland presents his concept without a well-rounded approach. His attempts at self-important commentary resonate with didact results, ultimately reading like a thesis project that lacks core character and plotting elements. I’d argue that having a female co-writer would have helped define Harper as more than a byproduct of male turmoil.
While Garland struggles on a thematic level, I still found myself engaged by his visceral sensibilities. Men drips with atmosphere and haunting tensions as Harper descends down a rabbit hole of deranged masculine behaviors. Garland’s dynamic color pallet, precise framing, and engaging surrealism represent Men’s throughline far better than what’s on the page. The film works best when its confrontational energy grounds itself in genre techniques, including a third act drenched in blood-soaked imagery.
Men’s tight-knit cast also helps ease some of the narrative dissonances. Jessie Buckley continues her ascension toward Hollywood superstardom for a reason. The actress embodies Harper’s frustrations and pains sincerely in an effort that helps elevate the material around her. Stalwart character actor Rory Kinnear has a blast sinking his teeth into the various personas that haunt Harper’s vacation. While the enigmas present their own eccentricities, Kinnear grounds each in the casual disdain and disconnect between the two parties.
Men lacks the refinement and sophistication of Garland’s previous work, but the experience still connects as an alluring horror exercise.