Men (United Kingdom, 2022)

May 19, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Men Poster

Men is Alex Garland’s third film, following in the wake of Ex Machina and Annihilation. It is his least accessible production to-date, venturing into the psychotic horror hinterlands where movies like Darren Aaronofsky’s mother! reside. It’s about two-thirds of a creepy, unsettling story but it comes unglued in the final 30 minutes. This in part because of a tendency toward pretentiousness, in part because the special effects are cheesy, and in part because certain narrative choices simply don’t work. The movie has a dissociative identity disorder – at times I was reminded of Kubrick (The Shining in particular) and, on other occasions, Ed Wood came to mind.

A gothic atmosphere permeates Men, which mostly transpires in an out-of-the-way mansion in the Middle of Nowhere, U.K. It’s a land that time forgot; the landscape is lush and rural, the woods are dark and menacing, and there’s an abandoned railway tunnel that seems like the gateway to hell. Harper (Jessie Buckley) is there because she needs some alone-time to recover from a tragedy. Her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), recently committed suicide after blackmailing her with the threat if she didn’t call off divorce proceedings. Weighted down by guilt, anger, and emotional turmoil, she seeks the solace of the countryside. The place where she arrives is like many a horror movie village – populated by oddballs who become more sinister when the sun goes down. There’s the seemingly genial Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear, one of M’s functionaries in the recent James Bond movies), who rents Harper the place; a long-haired vicar (also Kinnear) whose repressed sexuality taints his every thought; a nasty man-boy (Zak Rothea-Oxley); a naked stalker; and an unhelpful policeman. Harper’s lone contact with the outside world is her three-hours-away best friend, Riley (Gayle Rankin), whose cell calls are interrupted at the most inconvenient moments.

Gardner takes his time establishing the setting, nestling into the mood, and delivering a remarkably unsettling 70 minutes of cinema. It’s a slow boil and, as hints are dropped about a supernatural aspect to what’s going on, we become increasingly intrigued by the explanation for all of this. But, when it come time to reveal a few things and clear up some of the ambiguities, the movie goes off the rails. The promise of the first two-thirds makes the third act all the more bitter. The bottom line, which conflates toxic masculinity with someone’s definition of “love,” is trite. The recursive bad special effect is cheap and corny. And Garland’s refusal to adhere to any logic is annoying. He wants to deliver the message without the messy details of constructing a framework. It’s a Kubrickian conceit done with all the subtlety of Wood.

Jessie Buckley is excellent. The actress, most recently seen in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, brings together all the emotional aspects of the character and allows them to gel. Here’s a woman who has endured an incredibly stressful and traumatic experience (emotional blackmail from her husband, physical abuse by the same man, and looking into his eyes as he kills himself) only to face an even greater peril. Harper is no more of a conventional horror movie lead than Men is a conventional horror movie. Rory Kinnear, playing opposite her in a variety of roles, embodies friendly creepiness – the kind of guy who seems harmless enough at first, although it’s difficult to figure out whether his oddities are the result of extreme social awkwardness or something deeper.

What Garland achieves in Men is a near-perfect setup. The scenes with Harper wandering in the woods (culminating with the long, dark disused tunnel) are masterfully executed. They are pulse-pounding. The same is true of the sequence where Harper is on the phone while the naked man lurks outside. There’s a lot of great material in Men, but it’s almost all in the first two-thirds. After that…pffft! The thing that boggles the mind isn’t the ambiguity of the last act (which, upon careful consideration, isn’t as difficult to unpack as it might initially seem to be) but the question of how something so good could go so bad so fast.

In a way, it’s almost worth recommending Men for the first 70 minutes. At that point, a quick exit would preserve the illusion that this is some sort of modern horror classic. For those who stick around, however, the final assessment isn’t likely to be nearly as favorable. Sometimes it’s better not learning the answers to questions or getting a good look at the monster. This is one of those cases.

Men (United Kingdom, 2022)

Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin, Zak Rothera-Oxley
Home Release Date: 2022-08-09
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury
U.S. Distributor: A24
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2022-05-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Disturbing Images)
Genre: Horror/Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1