2022 | R | starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear | written & directed by Alex Garland | 1 hr 40 mins |
2022 Halloween Horrorfest
After witnessing the death of her husband, Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to a cottage in the English countryside to deal with her grief, only to be regularly accosted by men in the town who seem to know more about her life than they let on.
With only a handful of movies under his belt, writer/director Alex Garland has become a reliable voice in modern science fiction filmmaking, building to excellent work with Ex Machina, Annihilation and the mini-series Devs. All of his scripts, even back to 28 Days Later, aren’t just unique genre works but also good, honest, examples of female empowerment films with not-so-subversive feminist themes. Well, subtext becomes text in Garland’s 2022 effort, Men, a movie that is as superficial and obvious as it’s title. Garland has a natural filmmaker’s eye and creates some beautiful imagery and a simmering sense of dread in the early going, but that competency masks a creatively bankrupt movie that is more pretentious than insightful.
Men feels like the work of a writer who has their first big hit, the studio asks for something else and he pulls his first script out of the bottom of a drawer. It has all the themes of his other movies, however, less refined, less thoughtful and requiring a few more drafts to work out. It’s Teaching Mrs. Tingle after Scream. Seven Psychopaths after In Bruges. It is a slick, polished movie with nothing going on upstairs.
All men are the same in Men, quite literally, with every male character in town played by James Bond series regular Rory Kinnear. From an inkeeper that is too friendly for the lone woman to the priest who blames her for her husband’s death to the frightening sight of a strange nude man who wanders around in the park. The film stars Jessie Buckley, who absolutely stole the show in the 4th season of Fargo. Here, she plays one-note grief in a movie ostensibly about grief and regret – because all horror movies since The Babbadock are grief metaphors now.
But Garland’s usually deft tact is as subtle as a sledge-hammer. Not only does Harper’s request for a divorce end up leading to her husbands death. And not only does he manipulate her by responding to it by saying he’s going to kill himself, but Garland has her look him in the eye while he’s falling past the window in a slow-motion, red-tinted flashback. Any single one of these transgressions would have made for something a better movie could unpack. Instead Garland throws it all at us and unpacks nothing. During Harper’s trip to the country it’s unclear if she even is grieving or just on holiday. She doesn’t act, she only reacts. To men. She seems to have no goal and no conflict, other than avoiding the men outside the house. It plays like the world’s most serious take on Whithnail and I.
And speaking of unpacking. Should we get into the nutball climax of Men which seems to be trying to mix together 80s body horror, a feminist fantasy of pregnant men and a clown car. Garland is aiming for “WTF” but the movie is too dry, too full of itself and too dreary to earn such a reaction. It’s an oddity with more comic timing that slack jawed horror. That ramp up, that established tone is why this ending doesn’t work and why last year’s purely fun Malignant very much worked.
Garland has a craftsman’s visual eye and there are sequences in the film that are beautiful. He knows how to set a motif of dread and does so better than a lot of studio films here. So there is an artistry to Men that keeps it from being completely unsalvageable. However from a story perspective, from the pretentiousness of the concept to the lack of creativity in the execution to the feeling I was being beat over the head with a sledgehammer with obvious symbolism and metaphor – I hated it.