Who’s up for some late-night toxic masculinity folk body horror?
One of the most deeply unpleasant moviegoing experiences you’ll have this year, or most years, ‘Men,’ directed by Alex Garland, is an extended metaphor in search of a storyline, a horror allegory looking for an audience. It never quite pins down the first goal, and because of that will never quite achieve the second. This is a cult movie by definition, and seemingly by design.
MEN ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear
Running time: 100 mins
‘Men’ concerns Harper, played by Jessie Buckley, a woman who lives in a nice condo in London. Harper has recently experienced a horrific personal tragedy, and as the movie opens, is decamping to a creepy country village of the type only seen on BBC3 real-estate shows. There she encounters a series of Men, all played by Rory Kinnear, ranging from a naked “Green Man” covered in cuts to a pervy vicar who calls her a slut. Men, the movie says over and over again, are the worst. The most interesting man in Men, and the most interesting character, is Jeffrey, the landlord of the 500-year-old house that Harper rents. “You have all the makings of a failed military man,” his father told him when he was seven, and that’s the only real character development anyone gets in the movie, including Harper. What’s this guy’s story, you wonder, but we never find out, because he mutates into a weird mask-wearing teenager who calls Harper a “bitch.”
All we really know about Harper is that she’s a woman who has some sort of boring job in finance or business, and that her marriage went seriously, violently south. There are three female characters in the movie: Harper, her friend Riley, and a female cop who shows some sympathy to Harper’s plight when things start to get weird. Harper and Riley share a bond, but we’re not really sure why, maybe because they have first names that were the last names of prominent Canadian politicians. Buckley is a spectacular actor, one of the best working in movies today, but Harper is all depth and no surface. She almost makes a specific character out of deeply abstract material, but not quite.
In the film’s back nine, things get increasingly gory and phantasmagorical, as Garland taps into the myths of the Green Man, who is some sort of ancient Celtic religious icon. The final sequence is so disgustingly over the top, it’s almost laughable. ‘Men’ fits into the broad category of “folk horror,” but unlike the most successful folk-horror movies, like The Wicker Man or Midsommar, it never really explains its terms, or tells us who the folk are or why they should horrify us. Like in his most recent directorial effort, ‘Annihilation,’ Garland fills ‘Men’ with loads of creepy greenery. But Annihilation, which was also unpleasant, also served the bizarre plot of Jeff Vandermeer’s source novel. ‘Men’, on the other hand, is an original idea, but it’s almost only an idea, a thesis statement in search of a term paper.
Does Harper actually encounter a creepy shape-shifting man-village? Or is she actually a serial murderer experiencing a psychotic break after suffering at the hands of toxic masculinity for too long? Are men actually horrible? If that’s what Garland is trying to say, and he just might be, then ‘Promising Young Woman‘ made that point a lot better, with a disturbing but still really entertaining pop sensibility. ‘Men’ feels like a strange Ken Russell movie you saw in college, good for a purposeless but heated dorm-room conversation. It will, however, make you think twice before making a reservation on Vrbo.