Men, the newest film from Alex Garland sees Harper (Jessie Buckley) renting a stately country home from Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and using it as a solitary retreat of sorts after a violent separation from her husband (Paapa Essiedu) and a personal tragedy strike. Harper instantly falls in love with the surrounding countryside until a seemingly innocuous walk in the forest puts her in the path of a strange, stalker-esque figure. Events spiral from there, with the local village growing unsettling and surreal, even terrifying, events envelope Harper.
Men had promise from the offset, not least of all based upon Garland’s stellar track record in genre cinema, but quickly stubs out the embers of this expectation. The film is well made in a technical sense when seen from an objective perspective, but, when analysed in the context of its specifics, falls apart. From a tonal and aesthetic standpoint, it mirrors folk-horror films, especially the last decade or so’s wave of ‘neo-folk horror’ that came in the wake of Kill List. However, this feels like a genre skin slapped onto the film, rather than an actual utilisation of genre conventions: despite all the fitting musical choices and shots of looming woodlands, vegetation overtaking the modern world, and strange carvings of folkloric-seeming figures, there is nothing to this below the surface and it feels simply like an overblown visual tribute to the classic films of the subgenre without any justification.
The film’s effects are another problem. The gore/body gags would have worked excellently (and been relatively easily constructed on a low-budget) as practical FX, and would have been right in the wheelhouse of an artist like Dan Martin (Lords of Chaos, The Colour Out of Space, Possessor). Unfortunately, they are instead achieved using sub-par digital effects, which both pull you out of any immersion the director may have established, and strays further from any of the folk-horror authenticity which Men seems to strive for.
The flimsy genre aspirations and shoddy digital effects are insignificant, however, when compared to the film’s most prevalent flaw – its miscalculated attempts at social critique. The film reminded me of Darren Aronovsky’s mother! (It is probably necessary to mention here that this is simply my reading of the film, and by no means objective, nor can I say with any certainty that it mirrors Alex Garland’s intentions) in both superficial structural ways and in the blunt, on the nose delivery of its central metaphor.
If you have read anything on the film, you’re probably aware thar Rory Kinnear portrays every male character in the film (aside from Essiedu’s small but pivotal role as James). Where mother! hammered viewers over the head with its adaptation of biblical tales and structure, this film works similarly with the sentiment that ‘all men are the same’, which becomes more literal as the plot progresses. That isn’t an ignoble message in itself, and could work well in a different horror story, where it wouldn’t have been handled so clumsily.
To top this off, without giving away specific story details, the film seems to take the side of the men in the final act. The ‘tree man’ seems symbolic of either the idea that men can grow, the idea that growth can come from men, or both, while the later body horror elements appear, to me, to insinuate that even the most heinous of figures (spefically male and patriarchal in this case) deserve a second chance. With this in mind it surely can’t be coincidental that the early minutes of the film are soundtracked by Lesley Duncan’s rendition of ‘Love Song’, while the closing minutes are soundtracked by Elton John and Duncan’s duet version.
Despite all the film’s problems, credit must be given to Jessie Buckley, who is phenomenal in the film, which is clear to be seen in spite of the writing, in which her entire character essentially boils down to, on the writer’s part, ‘look at us, we’re giving her agency’ and Rory Kinnear who does great work, especially considering the task at hand. Unfortunately, in a film this haphazardly strung together, it becomes less of a case of good performances in a bad movie and more of a case of the viewer left feeling that the cast deserve better.
If the points made haven’t already clear, I can’t say that I would recommend Men to anyone, and, after leaving the cinema, I couldn’t help being put in mind of the one guy at every college and uni that would learn off quotes from feminist writing so he could regurgitate it to girls to woo them without ever even seeing the irony in it.
Men is currently playing in Irish cinemas.