Directed by Alex Garland — Screenplay by Alex Garland.
Alex Garland’s folk horror film MEN follows the widowed Harper Marlowe (played by Jessie Buckley), who, after having recently lost her husband to what may or may not have been a death by suicide, has decided to go on holiday in a small village in Britain because she needs to unwind and heal. However, she continues to be haunted by her trauma when she arrives in the village. Although she doesn’t point it out, each and every man she meets has the same face as Geoffrey (played by Rory Kinnear), the owner of the house she has rented, including a mysterious naked man who starts stalking her, as well as the local vicar who, after hearing about Harper’s trauma, suggests that she is to blame for what happened to her husband.
I should love Alex Garland’s MEN. After all, I consider myself to be a relatively big fan of Alex Garland’s work. I think the films he has made as a screenwriter with Danny Boyle are terrific, I thought his science-fiction thriller series Devs was quite good, and I genuinely loved both of his first two films as a director — Ex_Machina and Annihilation — as, I thought, they were both genuinely thought-provoking science-fiction films. I’ve even called him a master of that genre. On top of that, I think this film’s lead actress, Jessie Buckley, could end up being recognized as one of the best actors of her generation down the line. So, Garland and Buckley teaming up to make an A24 folk horror film is the kind of project that I’ve been looking forward to ever since I first heard of its existence.
Again, I should love Alex Garland’s MEN, but, at least after my first viewing, I can’t say that I do. It’s not that I dislike the film — I don’t — or that I completely dismiss it as a mess or a ‘bad film,’ — it’s not — but rather it suggests that not all of it clicked for me. As the film came to an end, MEN, unlike Garland’s previous two films as a director, left me with the feeling that Garland hadn’t quite succeeded in making all of it come together in a way that was satisfying. The ingredients are all there, Garland was cooking something up quite nicely, but the film opts for ambiguity at an ill-opportune moment. It feels somewhat incomplete, and that makes it a little bit frustrating. But I also do admire Garland’s attempt to swing for the fences, even if it ultimately adds up to something that is more heavy-handed and underwhelming than subtle and fascinating.
This isn’t to say that none of it works. In fact, I think a lot of it does especially in the first two acts. Sure, it is deliberately paced, but it is also very effective in creating the right mood and atmosphere so that the more intense stalking and home invasion scenes really send chills down your spine. Aided by solid cinematography and memorable music, Garland has crafted some scenes and shots that really stick with you. I’ve spent quite a bit of time already trying to play back scenes in my mind in an attempt to mine them for thematic importance and symbolism. I also think it must be said that Jessie Buckley is quite good here in the central performance as Harper. The flashback scenes with her and her husband stick with you because her argument with her husband feels so authentic. To add to that, I think it’s quite clear that Rory Kinnear’s job here – as all but one of the male characters (something that Harper doesn’t comment on) — must be a dream role for him, as it really does allow him to show a variety of male traits and really have fun with some of them (particularly Geoffrey).
Although the fact that Kinnear’s face is on almost every man Harper meets isn’t fully acknowledged, it is obviously purposefully done as it helps to make some of the film’s thematic intentions explicit. It is clearly a film that is interested in deep-roted misogyny. Garland tries to trace misogyny back to its roots in religion, history, and iconography, all the while having chosen the same male face as a uniform to express shared characteristics in men and to express how men’s beliefs about women color their interactions with them in different ways. These men appear to be manifestations of her guilt and trauma, and perhaps Harper even has an anxiety about whether those misogynistic traits can be passed down.
Garland has thrown a lot at the wall and not all of it sticks. Garland does get some things across here, but most of what he succeeds in communicating feels very simple, whereas his more ambitious takes and themes don’t quite land. I’m sure Garland had a reason for giving Harper the surname ‘Marlowe’ because Geoffrey at one point mentions Shakespeare, but I’m not quite sure why Garland wanted to namedrop those playwrights. There’s also a focus on motifs like rebirth, birth and more through the use of the ‘green man’ and ‘sheela na gig,’ but Garland doesn’t do a lot to explain their appearance. It all leads up to a creepy and intense home invasion sequence in the third act but it gradually becomes more and more perplexing rather than more and more scary. Eventually, there is this jaw-dropping rebirth body horror scene that is fairly effective initially, but the longer it goes on (and it’s pretty lengthy) the less you care, and it does become quite repetitive.
I saw the film in an empty theater, but I can imagine that a crowded theater showing would’ve led to many walkouts (and perhaps even some loud annoying jeers once the closing credits appeared) because it might be hard for an unprepared general moviegoing audience to appreciate it. I think it is better and more interesting than those kinds of reactions would suggest, though. It reminded me a little bit of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! only this is a much more unfocused film (and MEN ultimately isn’t as good or fascinating).
When it comes down to it, I really do admire Alex Garland’s ambition with MEN. It has got some interesting ideas, some haunting and evocative images, an unsettling atmosphere, strong performances from Kinnear and Buckley, and some crazy (albeit repetitive) body horror that you have to see to believe, but — and this is important — it doesn’t all come together in the end. So, it is a bit of a disappointment for me, but I think it is still an ‘okay’ folk horror film, even though it doesn’t stick the landing or fulfill its potential.
6.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.