Men may begin as a quiet trip to the country… but it is no vacation.
Directed by Alex Garland, Men tells the story of Harper (Jessie Buckley), a young women left grief-stricken after the sudden and shocking death of her husband. In an attempt to heal, Harper retreats alone to the English countryside, renting a small estate where she can be alone. After meeting the quirky groundskeeper (Rory Kinnear), she settles in for some peace and quiet. Although, when someone follows her home after a morning walk, her time of solitude begins to unravel as she looks to escape her mysterious stalker (or, potentially, stalkers) before its too late.
As is often the case with Garland’s work, the film is visually stunning from start to finish. By taking painstaking detail in his cinematography, Garland ensure that every shot is rife with metaphorical significance. Anchored by slow camera pans, Garland wants the viewer to sit within his imagery with a reflective glare. Bold red colours that bleed across the screen augment the pervasive darkness within its characters. The harsh lines of the estate contain Harper in a prison of tradition and the ‘old ways’. Frankly, there’s very few frames that are visually wasted in this storytelling.
Infusing her performance with an inner strength, star Jessie Buckley does an excellent job portraying the combination of grief and courage necessary for her character’s evolution. However, despite some solid work from Buckley, it’s Kinnear’s wild performance(s) that may be most notable within the film. Playing almost every male role, Kinnear brings life to his villainous men, disappearing into each persona. From the toxic shame of a priest to the ignorance of the police, each character he creates is fueled by their own quirks and characteristics that makes them entirely unique.
Admittedly, it’s worth noting that Men is not for the squeamish. Known for films like Ex Machina and Annihilation, Garland has made a name for himself with his visual creativity. In Men, however, he truly unleashes his inner brutality, especially in the film’s final sequence. Beginning as fairly standard (but well-executed) terror, the film gradually devolves into the madness of body horror that would make Cronenberg proud. However, despite featuring arguably some of the more graphic images we’ve seen onscreen in recent years, Men never loses sight of its metaphor. As a result, even the most disturbing sights feel earned as the film leans into its conversations about the poisonous nature of masculinity.
Much like Eve’s bite of the proverbial fruit in the Garden of Eden, so too does the film emphasize the shame placed upon women in order to preserve the male ego. At every turn, the film looks to find a reason to share the blame as opposed to admitting any form of guilt. Whether it is the accusations of her husband or the absurd counsel of a broken priest, Harper is constantly blamed for the problems of men. Though Harper’s grief weighs heavily upon her soul, her suffering is not heard. Instead, at every turn, her feelings are belittled by men who consistently look for ways to explain away their own transgressions by placing responsibility on others (or, more specifically, women).
Though she bears no guilt, she is made to believe that she does.
As Men unravels further, it becomes clear that it’s not about one or two problematic men but rather the toxicity of an entirely male culture. By using Kinnear in multiple roles, Garland highlights the fact that all men suffer from the same flaws. From laying on shame to outright abusiveness, these characters have created a culture of brutality, male power and arrogance that is passed down from generation to generation. (Incidentally, it’s possible that this is why the film is titled Men. Written by a man, this is an as much an exploration of what is wrong with the male gender as it is about women’s responsiveness into it.)
As is often the case within Garland’s work, the film’s finale remains open for interpretation. Without giving any spoilers, this seems like a genuine inquiry as to what it is going to take to end the cycle of masculine toxicity. Although the film lands on a moment of optimism, Men is unafraid to sit in the darkness. But what does hope look like when the surrounding culture seems unaware of the depth of its issues? While Garland gives no clear response, Men demands that the viewer look for answers.
Men is available in theatres on Friday, May 20th, 2022.