Men is Alex Garland’s lustrous, gendered fever dream that enchants as much as it confuses

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Men is Alex Garland's lustrous, gendered fever dream that enchants as much as it confuses

About halfway through “Men,” writer/director Alex Garland’s gripping psychological thriller, a vicar (Rory Kinnear) asks Harper (Jessie Buckley), “Do you prefer things comfortable, do you?” This movie is rarely comfortable, and what is exactly true, the viewers have to decide.

Men opens with a hypnotic dreamlike episode in which Harper looks out a window and sees a man (Paapa Essiedu) fall to his death. It soon emerges that the man was James, Harper’s husband. In response to her filing for divorce, he had threatened suicide. James told Harper he wanted to kill himself so she would be forced to live with the guilt. But did he really fall to his death or did he accidentally slip?

Garland is meticulous about how his characters speak, and even more so about the images he composes.

The guilt could motivate Harper to leave London and stay in a “dream country home.” But her efforts to heal her trauma are hardly restorative. Biting into an apple she plucks from the tree in the front yard of the property, her actions certainly have an eerie meaning to them. Even the home’s caretaker, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), jokingly mentions that she eats “forbidden fruit.”

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Garland is absolutely precise in the way his characters speak and he’s even more precise in the images he composes, which range from stunningly beautiful water ripples to just plain stunning – a very gory, very graphic shot of a severed hand, which looks incredibly painful.

men (Kevin Baker/A24)

“Men” is often unsettling, but not necessarily in the expected way, which benefits the film. Early on, Harper takes a walk through the nearby forest and has a lovely moment echoing sounds in a tunnel. But then she sees a man in the distance and runs off, getting a little lost. Is this real or did Alice fall down a rabbit hole? Harper snaps a picture in a field and a completely naked man (Rory Kinnear in a multiple role) appears in the shot and interrupts her. His later following her home and tormenting her prompts Harper to call the police. The episode also triggers a vivid image of James impaled on a fence.


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As masterful as Garland is with his precision, he can get a bit pretentious… If viewers just bother to solve it.

Harper is haunted, and Buckley wide-eyed or grimaced to express her fear. As she cries out in pain from a pew, viewers can feel her grief tearing her apart. The actress, who has been exceptional in everything from ‘Beast’ and ‘Wild Rose’ to ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ and ‘The Lost Daughter,’ delivers another bravura performance by taking on the villain in the divorce storyline switches to victim and goes from powerless to powerful in the horror story. (A long, nerve-wracking sequence finds her alone in the house like a last girl brandishing a knife while someone or something tries to get her.) Buckley is imperious on screen because she exudes confidence even when she’s freaking out the most .

But as masterful as Garland is with his precision, he can get a bit overbearing. There’s an episode with a decomposing dead deer that’s great to film – the camera dips into the animal’s eye socket – but it kind of folds in on itself. There are stunning images of the naked man adorning himself with leaves or blowing dandelion seeds, courtesy of Rob Hardy, Garland’s top cinematographer, as well as mystical, ominous shots of stony faces, all of which must mean something. If only viewers could bother to solve it.

menmen (Kevin Baker/A24)

One of the problems with Men is that it’s so ambitious and ambiguous that it’s easier to just let the movie go and think about it later – if at all. That’s not to say the drama isn’t intriguing; It’s absolutely beguiling as it changes across time and genre. What’s up with a boy who wants Harper to play hide and seek and calls her “a stupid bitch” when she refuses? And what really happens when Harper sees and hears things that may or may not be real? Sure, it’s impressive to see Rory Kinnear show up as half a dozen different characters at the local dive bar when Harper goes out for a drink. And there are two (if not more) WTF episodes late in the film that are sure to be talked about and admired for their sheer boldness and indelible imagery. But what exactly is Garland saying here?

“Men” is certainly a commentary on gender inequality, mental health, and depression, and it draws attention to how men and women communicate, as well as issues of power and control exercised in love and relationships. (In one of the film’s scariest moments, a male character asks Harper about losing her virginity and describes how he imagines it). But the notions of survivor guilt and coping with trauma seem a bit lost in all the craziness. The characters’ motivations are unclear, which may be intentional, but it’s also confusing.

However, Garland delights in teasing and provoking viewers. He fills his film with surrealistic moments that offset some of the harsher realities he portrays. He has constructed a brilliant fever dream that enchants as well as confuses.

“Men” hits theaters on May 20th. Watch a trailer for it via YouTube below.

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