“I wouldn’t recommend that film to my worst enemy”
What a tantilising phrase to hear someone say coming out of a movie. An older woman also in earshot took the bait and asked the couple, “I’m sorry, but what film is that?”.
Alex Garland, famed novelist of The Beach and writer of many Danny Boyle films of the 00’s has become one of the most interesting writer directors working in genre Film & TV.
As a creator he takes wide swings and Men may be his widest swing yet.
After the death of her husband a woman (Jessie Buckley) retreats to the countryside to process and heal this unimaginable tragedy but as she settles in her airb&b she is confronted by the deepening details of the death as well as the ratcheting pressure, looks and unsolicited opinions of the local men of this quaint little English town.
All of the men, bar the deceased husband, are played by Rory Kinnear. I had expected for a slew of different characters, a real scenery chewing showcase a la James McAvoy in Split, and there is a little of that. Kinnear has plenty of fun in parts but the film’s scale actually feels very small and focused. We never really get a good sense of the community which is often one of the key points of any folk horror story. The grandest display of the community as a whole would be one scene in the local pub. An almost uncanny valley sense of dread follows us when there’s more than one Rory Kinnear in a scene.
Jessie Buckley plays our protagonist, and we are so deeply with her throughout the entire film, watching her and her grief unfold. Buckley has been riding a wave of interesting and deeply introspective roles in the last few years (The Lost Daughter & I’m Thinking of Ending Things). She carries the film because she is our only consistency.
The film is gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy, Garland’s previous collaborator on Annihilation and Ex Machina, images of ponds and fields remind you of a Monte. We begin with an apple being plucked from a tree, and landlord of the rented house joking about forbidden fruit. The symbology plays centre stage in Men. The red walled interiors of the home, the apple tree out front, the abyssally long decommissioned train tunnel in the woods and the bald naked man running out of said tunnel. Daffodils in particular are a strong motif which starts, mids and ends the film, these weeds with the potential for explosive spreading, a true meme, self replicating toxicity.
Men is in fact so drenched in symbology that I honestly missed most of it in the moment, lost in the surreal dream of the tone and pacing of the film. It feels like a half-formed thing, filled with intent but without the hallmarks of classic storytelling that can make something like this more digestible. There is no mistaking that Garland had no intent on being easily digestible with Men. The closest experience I can liken this to is Aranoski’s Mother. Garland seems to be more and more interested in this kind of territory, with the last 15 minutes of Annihilation and most of Devs springing to mind.
The ending of the film is becoming something of a filmic legend already which is always impressive and I won’t spoil it here but its pretty horrific and truly one of the most bizarre sequences in a “mainstream” feature film that I’ve seen in a very long time.
This sadly ranks at the bottom of my Alex Garland list but I’m happy to have a filmmaker like him making interesting, weird and original works that I can watch in a dark movie theatre with a bunch of strangers losing their minds. 3/5
- Oscar Jack