Chill Clinton obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies in 2016 and has since worked as a professional writer.
I have an almost Pavlovian compulsion to check the time on my watch as the credits roll and the lights come on in a movie theater. I've reasoned it to be a sort of ritual that draws me from the cinematic dreamscape, and returns me to a safer, and thankfully much more boring reality.
At the conclusion of Alex Garland's "Men", my eye was instantly pulled to the small segment of my watch's display that tracks my heart rate. It read out "98 bpm", while a tiny illustration of a heart blinked in rhythm with my pulse.
I watch a lot of horror movies. Some would argue too many for my own good. Like most life-long horror fans, I've built an almost unshakable tolerance for scary stories, visceral effects, and the extent of human depravity that filmmakers dare to show of the screen.
But "Men" reminds me that I can still be deeply terrified by horror movies.
A Return to Eden
Those with a discerning eye for allegory won't be able to ignore "Men"'s central theme from the start. The audience is introduced to Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), the film's protagonist, as she plucks an apple from a tree adorning the front garden of a small mansion in the English countryside.
This modern day "Eve" has escaped her life in the city to this remote getaway with the hopes of healing from her husband's (Paapa Essiedu) death.
But after a walk in the woods ends in an encounter with a naked man who follows her out of an old railway tunnel, Harper can't escape the troubling gaze of every man she encounters.
As the narrative progresses, we learn more about the nature of Harper's relationship with her late husband. Prior to his death, she desperately wanted to leave him, but was paralyzed by his threat to take his own life if she did. In a flashback, he even tells her that her leaving him would be akin to murder.
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But when an act of domestic violence compels Harper to throw her husband out for good, he immediately pushes his way into the apartment above. And whether by choice, or in a failed attempt to climb down onto Harper's high rise patio, he falls to his death.
The Uncanny Canyon
As evident by Garland's previous work on "Ex Machina", a techno-thriller about an AI robot wrapped in realistic skin, the director is interested in playing with the fear and anxiety of facing something that appears human, but we know to be unnatural in some way.
In "Men", every male character in this small town- the property owner, the naked man in the woods, the police officer who apprehends the naked man, the local priest, a mischievous schoolboy, the local bartender, and even the unnamed barflies he serves- are all played by the same actor (Rory Kinnear). They even appear in the same room as each other, and nobody, not even Harper, acknowledges this.
Eventually this decision plays an important narrative role by the film's conclusion, but its persistence throughout creates an immense feeling of unease. It's a reminder from the exposition that something is deeply wrong with the setting where our protagonist finds herself, and lends to the film's exploration of confused recollection, and implicit distrust of Harper's perception.
Though the men in this town eventually pose a physical threat to Harper, they first stand between her and an escape from the painful memory of her husband's death. They ask her where "Mr. Marlowe" is, hurl names at her when she isn't interested in their company, and when she finally confides in a priest, he implies that she is responsible for her husband's death because she was unwilling to accept his apology for punching her in a moment of rage.
The Weight of Sin, Personified
Few horror films succeed in being as deliberate with their messaging as they are with narrative and aesthetic choices. I can imagine that some will criticize the film's direct references to the Edenic Myth, Leda and the Swan, and the sirens of Greek Legend who lure sailors to their deaths since they act like blinking neon signs, pointing at the film's critical stance on masculine fragility.
However, I found the clear thematic context concise and unpretentious, enriching the film's pulse pounding, visceral conclusion that reveals exactly who, or what propels the horrors that Harper has experienced, and will likely never fully evade. This clarity leading to the film's Third Act allows "Men" to continue its thematic exploration through grotesque metaphors, energetic action, and a final discovery that needs nothing more than a single question and response from the characters on screen to feel fully realized.
Marked by fantastic cinematography that both disrupts our perception of the film's setting, and leaves viewers perpetually afraid of what lingers just out of frame, "Men" is a masterwork of horror that defies visual and narrative expectations at every possible turn.
However, the most impactful terror comes from the film's meditation on the social and interpersonal blame women carry for the wrongdoing of men. And by the film's end, "Men" does not take a conclusive or reassuring stance on the subject, instead acting as a mirror that simply forces the audience to acknowledge that weight, personified in blood, grief, and violence.