Alex Garland’s Men falls into a very specific category of film. British folk horror with a vague air of something far more artistic, Men promises to be a thought-provoking experience. In this, it delivers, although it falls short in many other ways.
One of the most striking things about Men is its visuals. Set against a backdrop of gorgeous English countryside, its horror story unfolds slowly, but at a reasonable and justified pace. Beginning with widow Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) retreating to the remote country village of Cotson while attempting to emotionally recover from the suicide of her estranged husband (Paapa Essiedu), Men‘s story has a lot to digest from the off.
Upon meeting the owner of her holiday home, Men‘s unsettling tone begins to creep in. Rory Kinnear plays almost every man in the film (other than Marlowe’s late husband), and he fills his many roles by demonstrating the sheer range of his talent. Each of these roles seeming demonstrate a different aspect of masculinity, fulfilling different roles in their relationships with Harper – both good and bad.
Therein lies Men‘s incredible transparency. There’s absolutely no subtlety to be seen with regards to the film’s themes: it’s a rumination on toxic masculinity and the cycle of abuse perpetuated by it. It’s not particularly intelligent, nor is it deftly carried off, but blinding performances from Buckley and Kinnear carry Men through even its most heavy-handed scenes.
Men‘s attempt to examine abusive relationships and men and women’s respective roles in them proves to be a gross oversimplification of an incredibly nuanced issue. Unfortunately, this seems to be unavoidable – having male characters play the aggressor and a female be their victim may be powerful on one hand, but it’s potentially harmful on another. It may ultimately come down to a matter of personal opinion, but that’s a dangerous game to play with such a serious subject.
That struggle is at the heart of Men. Its intentions are generally good, and its themes hold weight, but it’s let down by its own ambition. By tackling something so complex in such a head-on manner, it comes off as somewhat condescending, presenting itself as a film that holds all the answers. This alone isn’t problematic, but for the most part, Men vilifies men and victimizes women, and its visceral and metaphorical ending only confuses the issue further, cementing its most harmful ideas.
Men‘s final scene confirms that Kinnear’s characters represent ALL men, and the repeated birthing demonstrates the cycle of abuse that their masculinity perpetuates. It also renders Harper helpless but to watch and suffer until her fellow woman arrives and brings her hope of escaping the cycle, and in doing so, it undermines any potential message it may have attempted to convey.
Ultimately, Men distills the idea that victims need saving and masculinity inevitably leads to abusive behaviors into a beautifully told, deeply unnerving film. It delivers a number of excellent scares, and more than a few moments of stomach-churning horror, but its deeper ideas seem to be inherently flawed. That’s a shame, because its tight cast give outstanding performances, helping to build the tension that’s paid off in one of the most bizarre and memorable horror movie endings of recent years.
Summary: Men works brilliantly as a horror movie, until its final scene where it beats its audience over the head with clumsy allegory that appears to communicate a problematic message.
Highlight: The performances of Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear make Men a deeply interesting and unsettling film.