men starts with the end of a relationship, and it’s a breakup with a body count. Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), a Londoner in her 30s who lives in a swanky high-rise building just across the Thames from The Shard, tells her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) that she wants a divorce and won’t accept an answer . In response, James threatens to kill himself before punching Harper in the jaw – and apparently her life – on the way out of the apartment.
This act of domestic violence is abrupt, horrific, and all too plausible, a slice of real-life horror in a highly conceptual film. What comes next approaches dreamlike surrealism: Harper, still shocked by James’ attack, sees her husband falling through the air outside their living room window; Their eyes meet for a split second as he punches against a blood red sunset. Did he fall? did he jump Is any of this really happening?
Alex Garland loves his mysteries, and Harper’s inability to reconcile her trauma with definitive answers about her own guilt gets under her skin and into her head. It’s as if a rift has opened in her psyche, from which are crawling all sorts of creepy, symbolic creatures, humanoid and otherwise – living additions to the menagerie her creator has tended to throughout his career. Few contemporary filmmakers are drawn to confusion like Garland: his cinema is a cinema of disorientation, of characters who don’t know what the hell is going on around them or what to do about it. The power of his films lies in how they transmit these fears to audiences; Think of the protagonist of 28 days later Waking up from a coma in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, a breathtaking cold open that also forces the audience to orient themselves. Or the software engineers at developer, systematically deciphering sensitive material as if their lives depended on it.
In a moment when arthouse and grindhouse are finally intertwined, Garland makes B-movies with A-Plus effort; he is a schlock master who wears his claim like a badge of honour. men, that’s equally impressive and flawed adds to that legacy while suggesting that its creator is still chasing master mindfuckers like Stanley Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg, who also blur the line between intellectualism and instinct. Like these directors at their best, Garland wants to make you think and flinch, ideally simultaneously. More than anything, though, he’s after that trembling exhilaration inherent in the greatest thrillers – the sense of scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces snapping into place, reality peeling off its skin to reveal a deeper, hidden truth that is us stared in the face the whole time. He got most of the way in destruction, that stranded Natalie Portman in a sci-fi wasteland teeming with exotic, unfathomable monsters (including the creepiest bear in cinematic history), only to escalate into an eerie — and nightmarish — confrontation with self. The ending somehow feels inexplicable and inevitable at the same time.
There’s more than a little destruction‘s sinister lyric in men, which also plays in front of a possibly enchanted pastoral backdrop and actually surpasses its predecessor in terms of grotesque special effects. In a year that will bring us a new David Cronenberg film, the bar for body horror has already been set frighteningly high. In fact, on a purely technical level, Garland has arguably outdone itself men, which embraces the practical limitations of filmmaking during COVID while making the most of its small cast and single location. The film is set in and around a beautiful country estate whose owner is gratefully renting it out at an additional cost to townspeople in need of a great escape. Garland films Harper’s arrival with just the right mix of menace and optimism: propelled along empty dirt roads on her way to what she hopes will be a relaxing solo vacation, she’s propelled along like a moth to a fire — or a lamb to the slaughter.
The idea of a grieving character seeking relief in an unfamiliar setting feels more than a little inspired by Roeg’s great occult shocker don’t look now, and Garland also borrows generously from Lars von Trier’s 2009 arthouse endurance test antichristitself a source of allusions to Roeg’s classics. In antichrist, The Holidaymakers are a married couple trying to come to terms with the death of their child, and von Trier, one of the great sadists of contemporary world cinema, arms their rural setting so that nature itself seems to exploit its vulnerabilities, turning them against one another in a mythical battle of the sexes. In men, Harper chooses to be alone, and the woods surrounding the property are clearly beautiful—a verdant symphony of shades of green—but over time, the same tense gender dynamic emerges. Harper’s host Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) is a toothy dolt whose overbearing politeness conceals little that is curious and unhealthy. No sooner has he left for good than Harper begins to sight a mute, naked man wandering through the woods, loitering at the edges of the property; Up close, his scarred face bears an uncanny resemblance to Geoffrey.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Kinnear has multiple roles in it Men: The trailer includes images of the actor in half a dozen different disguises. And while the makeup and CGI effects that occasionally transfer his face to various characters within the same frame – including the players of an entire pub – are highly effective, they are designed to draw attention to Garland’s conceptual gambit rather than hide it. Put simply, what Kinnear is at play here is Garland’s idea of the uppercase M “Men” as an abstract concept and a flesh-and-blood constituency; Ranging from a caring priest to a nasty teenager to a shy local cop, each of Kinnear’s different personalities mirrors and refracts an aspect of masculinity.
That almost all of these personalities are toxic suggests that Garland is trying to make a polemic – one that revises the Eden allegory Ex Machina, whose fembot heroine outsmarts her creator on the path to a form of feminist emancipation. The image of Harper blithely picking an apple from Geoffrey’s tree is certainly reminiscent of original sin, except Garland doesn’t punish her for her transgressions so much as shows the male characters taking every opportunity to molest her, and then her Justify conduct under the banner of well-meaning allies. A passage with Kinnear as a grey-haired minister whose words of wisdom turn judgmental just as he places a supportive hand on Harper’s knee evokes a real sense of unease. The threat he poses is not physical but existential. He’s an emotional vampire.
If Kinnear’s performance is a well-executed stunt, Buckley’s performance is a triumph. She’s an emotionally translucent actress, and as in her Oscar-nominated role The lost daughter—what how men, quotes from the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan – she is able to convey complicated feelings in the space between words and facial expressions. There’s a wonderful sequence with Harper in a tunnel, bouncing her voice off the walls until the echoes dissolve into orchestral harmony – a nice way of suggesting there is multitude in the character. For Garland’s conceptual coup to work, Harper must register as a multifaceted person holding the line against a sinister army of dead wrestlers, and in the absence of a crucial script (exposure isn’t Garland’s forte), Buckley brings the character to life and projects enough inwardness for us to believe – if we choose – that the whole film is a by-product of their own fractured consciousness.
For a while, the tension between Harper’s utter confusion about her situation and the strength of her survival instinct ignites the kind of charge that can electrify a film (and an audience). but men Garland’s one main idea—that the male characters are cruel and condescending in a way that evokes memories of James—varies, also becomes redundant. That iteration may be the point, as it aligns with the decision to have Kinnear play so many different roles, but hammering isn’t the same as delving. Perhaps implicitly sensing he’s backed himself into a corner, Garland strikes in the final act with a hellish sustained fugue of body horror that, if nothing else, guarantees men will have cult status. And to give credit where it’s due, there’s something admirably daring about the way the film ultimately subordinates action to metaphor, sacrificing any hope of narrative coherence on the altar of provocation. For viewers in search of extremes, Garland delivers the goods: limbs are split; body good and mutate; Taboos are skewered everywhere.
However, there is a difference between confrontation and depth and the slick, sardonic humor that resides within men‘s earlier scenes end up manifesting in the form of a cosmic shrug. Garland told it recently The New York Times that he was “tired of feeling like a cheater,” and while that’s probably too harsh a self-assessment, there’s something oddly unimpressive about it men– a feeling of a filmmaker who literally pushes the limits without getting anywhere. If the end of men meant to be fun, this mission is accomplished well enough. But there’s a sharper satire in the story’s DNA – that of an ambitious, well-meaning filmmaker so determined to create conversation that he ends up not saying much at all.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This book really ties the films together is available now from Abrams.