Alex Garland returns with a mind-boggling new film, Men. Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear, this film will leave your jaw on the floor.
Is it possible to hate and love a film simultaneously? If so, Alex Garland’s newest is a top-tier love-hate film. Films often divide audiences those are usually the best kind of films – but Men feels like it’s dividing my mind and my insides as my internal organs felt like they were shifting in sheer discomfort during the watch. I felt an inescapable sense of terror and a dire need to run for my life while also having my bottom glued to my seat and my eyes to the screen.
Jessie Buckley plays Harper, who escapes to the idyllic countryside to recover from the traumatic death of her abusive husband. She encounters several men, all of whom bear a striking resemblance to each other, making her very uncomfortable. Don’t we all know how that feels? There is something much more sinister about these men than your Average Joe.
To say any more of Men’s plot, would be to ruin the delicious way Garland’s story unravels itself. At all times, Men is deeply compelling, but also frustratingly surface-level in its exploration of Harper and her trauma. It leans away from the not-all-men rhetoric but instead continually insists, ‘Yes, all men!’ which is too simplistic and just not true.
On the surface, Men seems feminist – after all, it focuses on a female protagonist and the main antagonists are men – Garland, however, puts his protagonist through such a wringer that it makes you question why. If you look at Garland’s body of work, his central characters are often females who suffer greatly.
Similarly to Harper in Men, Natalie Portman’s Lena in Annihilation had a devastated husband and Ava, Ex_Machina’s gynoid had a disturbed creator. At times, it seems that Garland’s characters only exist in relation to the men in their lives. This is especially true for Harper, simply because the scope of Men is so tight and her entire personality is based on her trauma. Her unresolved grief seems to provide the power core within Men, but there are very few answers here. Instead, Garland raises fascinating, ultimately empty, questions about nature, fertility, and the cyclical, repeating nature of trauma and grief.
Men is a triggering film, and I found myself wondering how victims of abuse would find this. Would they find it exciting and cathartic? Would they feel a sense of victory? Or would they be further traumatised after being forced to watch a sole woman suffer for 100 minutes? Men is somehow a film that attempts to heal you as well as brutalise you as a viewer. It wants to have its misogynistic cake and eat it too by attempting to challenge the misogynistic ideas at the centre of it but ultimately succumbing to them.
Yet, Men is compelling. It’s fascinating, even engrossing. I could not tear my eyes off the screen, and despite what gnarly things Garland threw at me, I was transfixed. This was mostly due to the superb performances by Buckley and Rory Kinnear. Kinnear is frighteningly good; his voice and the tiny little mannerisms constitute a terrifying performance.
Men works as a horror film and seems right up A24’s alley. It shares common ground with films like Hereditary and Midsommar as well as The Witch and Saint Maud. All these films share that unique viewpoint of a woman, but funnily only one is directed by a woman. While commendable in his curiosity, Garland treats Harper as a victim; things happen to her and around her, and she’s powerless to change it but is also forced to suffer greatly. Garland loves to frame Buckley’s delicate face in a close-up as a single tear runs down her face.
It’s all a little too much. The last 20 minutes are unforgettable in all their gnarliness. Men is grotesque, in all the best and worst ways. The film’s entirety is enthralling and vividly brought to life by cinematographer Rob Hardy, but those last 20 minutes are almost haunting. You need a strong stomach for Men, but it’s without a doubt a challenging and uncomfortable watch, in so many more ways than is possible to express in a simple film review.