Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Grief Divided is Made Lighter
In Alex Garland’s Men, Harper (Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) takes a solo trip to the countryside to distract herself from the death of her ex-husband. Two weeks entirely to herself in an amazing house close to a village. It seems like a perfect getaway to recharge, but Harper doesn’t realize that she’s still grieving and every man she comes across in the village looks like Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear, Our Flag Means Death), the owner of the house where she’s currently staying.
Men is the third film Alex Garland has directed after Ex Machina and Annihilation. Falling under the folk horror genre (think The Wicker Man, Midsommar, and Lamb), Men prioritizes a surreal and horrific ambiance over a fully coherent story. As is, Men has that nonsensical storytelling Alexandre Aja’s High Tension has; the ending as well as many things leading up to it is illogically baffling. However, it’s something that feels deliberate by Garland. The ambiguity of what viewers take away from Men is part of what makes it so great.
What’s intriguing about Men is that you can’t really spoil it. Everything from the film could be laid out in front of you right now and it would still be a unique cinematic experience. The film mostly revolves around male toxicity and gaslighting, but it also seems to be saying something about grief and how we deal with it. Even though James (Paapa Essiedu), Harper’s ex-husband, dies in the film, Harper is the one that is transported to Hell. She is haunted by the final conversation she had with James, as well as how he died. The events of Men play out unusually, as well. They often show something happening like Harper walking down the hallway, out the front door, getting into her car, and driving away and splicing it with her never leaving the house and slightly caressing her surroundings instead of running for her life.
You can’t get a clear read on Geoffrey either and that’s the point. Geoffrey and all of his doppelgangers likely represent several different things, but he mostly feels like a mutilated manifestation of Harper’s guilt. Every version of Geoffrey seems to poke and prod at Harper in a way that never lets her forget about her former relationship. Harper secretly blames herself for James’ death and that heavy burden evolves into a nightmarish fever dream over the course of Men.
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Like other Alex Garland directed films, Men features exceptional performances from the two leads. Jessie Buckley’s performance is hopeful at first, then slowly slides into anxious fear. The issue is that the Harper character ultimately feels like she doesn’t really go anywhere. She’s distraught and she has these unbelievable occurrences happening to her and yet Harper as an on-screen character is kind of boring. Take away all the strange phenomena and her ex-husband and Harper doesn’t have much else in the form of memorable characteristics.
Since Rory Kinnear gets to portray so many different characters he essentially gets to portray a smorgasbord of emotions and peculiarities. As Geoffrey, he has this awkward yet harmless demeanor to him. He’s falsely comforting as the vicar once he reveals his perverted sexual nature and inability to quiet his manipulative bluntness. As the young boy, he’s aggressively playful while as the stalker he’s naked with no restraints. He has nothing to lose and nothing to hide, so this version of him doesn’t seem to abide by normal rules.
You likely won’t ever look at a mail slot the same way again after Men. Like the bear scene in Annihilation, this is the type of horror that lingers in your brain for years, if not forever. Without flat-out describing the ending in detail, it’s jaw-dropping and bonkers. The grief Harper has struggled with throughout the film seems to be trying to reboot itself into something tangible, but it can’t keep its shape. It dissolves and reforms only to wither away again over and over right in front of Harper. It’s bizarre, graphic, and unforgettable.
People will hate Men if they go into it wanting a straightforward story or a film that has one, clear-cut meaning once the end credits crawl across the screen. Men doesn’t offer either of those things. The film features stunning cinematography, a mesmerizing forest sequence, and a thrilling score that is as unsettling as it is operatic. Rory Kinnear is exquisitely chilling. This is the type of horror film that is purely, disgustingly, and gloriously nasty and ambiguous. Men is simultaneously a film you shouldn’t think too much about and yet absolutely think about all the time once it’s over.
© 2022 Chris Sawin