Whether it’s been the movies or shows he’s directed (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs), the screenplays he’s written (including Never Let Me Go and 28 Days Later…), or even the novels he’s written (he wrote the book Danny Boyle’s The Beach was based on), Alex Garland has always brought layers and levels of thoughtfulness to his work. Even his latest film that’s simply titled, Men, brings the layers, metaphors, and ideas that Garland’s become known for, even if it’s to a lesser degree.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) takes a solo two-week trip to an estate in the English countryside after the death of her husband James (Paapa Essideu). Upon her arrival at the estate, she takes a bite from a ripe apple hanging temptingly from the front yard apple tree, intentionally reminiscent of the biblical Eve taking a bite from the tree in Genesis. Her Airbnb host Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) even jokingly chastises her from eating the apple, calling it “forbidden fruit”. Geoffrey, who is friendly, if slightly awkward and un-self-aware, brings in Harper’s bags, gives her the tour around the house, and gives his best attempts at exchanging niceties with his new guest. But Harper, who’s taking this trip at all to get alone time away from everything after her husband’s death, is ready for Geoffrey to go on his way so she can unwind and decompress.
Once Geoffrey finally heads out, Harper takes a hike through the vibrantly green nearby forrest that lays just across the lush fields in the English manor’s back yard. In a film full of red environments that teeter between deeply unnerving and downright morose, these ever-so-brief moments of freedom and life give glimpses of what could (or maybe even what should) be for Harper. And even the afternoon shower the falls down on Harper’s hike doesn’t bother her — the puddles it creates along the path she walks add to the beauty she’s encountering outside her busy London life. She creates a chorus of one in a tunnel that creates beautiful echoes; everything is as it should be.
Until an anonymous man on the other side of the tunnel responds to her enchanting singing with repulsive shrieks, causing Harper to run in the other direction, back where she came from. The man, who bears a striking resemblance to Geoffrey (in fact, nearly all the men in the film do; besides James, they’re all played by Kinnear), follows Harper all the way back to the house. He’s fully unclothed and stares at her through the window, prompting her to call the police.
From here, the film goes full-tilt, and Garland brings in his typical questions of self and identity, and even (unsurprisingly based on the film’s title) follows up and expands upon some of the feminist ideas he began exploring in Ex Machina. Men of all kinds, but with the same face, are coming at Harper from every angle. A vicar in the local church, whose constantly-visible steeple looms over the entire local area, becomes handsy and frankly, misogynistic in his attempts to explain James’ death; a local teenage boy (who’s played by Zak Rothera-Oxley, but whose face is still Kinnear’s, in a way that teeters close to the uncanny valley) is enraged at Harper for her not indulging him in a game of hide and seek; the police officer let the naked man go — albeit after giving him some clothes to wear — because he no longer seemed like a threat; the bartender at the local pub is obliviously incurious to the local goings-on; Geoffrey even shows his true subtle, yet conspicuous chauvinistic colors. There’s no getting out for Harper.
After scenes that tiptoe the line between thriller and horror, Garland finally goes full-blown horror here with Men. Not only is there dread, both tangible and existential — there is also the murderer-on-the-loose storyline that owes as much to the classics such as Halloween as it does to anything in the so-called modern “elevated horror” genre. And there are some images in the last 20 minutes that are pure nightmare fuel due to the body horror that the film even dips into (and this is also where the film’s pacing suffers the most).
Yet, as is typical of Garland, it’s all with a purpose. At first glance, it can seem quite mansplain-y that a film with such feminist themes and anti-men sentiments would be written and directed by a man. But Garland never falls into the “I’m one of the good ones” pitfall. That’s never been his M.O. He brings a more pessimistic view of the world, and even of himself, to his work. Men is no different. When Harper eats the “forbidden fruit”, it’s not a judgement on the woman for causing the men to sin. It’s an indictment on the men for putting the blame for their awful behavior on anyone but themselves. With Kinnear’s performance of multiple characters (which is becoming a staple in the horror genre, with the likes of Split or US; Kinnear might be the best of the bunch), we’re seeing the way all men have become interchangeable in Harper’s eyes.
Poor treatment from James has led to a distrust of all men. The sweet-talking manner of her husband only leads him down an avenue towards love that’s backwards, destroying the fabric of his own relationship. Garland uses this as a narrative and thematic push to discuss the danger of a certain way of thinking. He’s not necessarily saying all men are inherently bad. It’s just that they all have an inherent tilt due to the way the world works. Their attitudes and proclivities are the reason that the luscious greens of Harper’s hike are often overtaken by the oppressive reds of everywhere else. It’s not an insurmountable hurdle, but it’s not one that’s likely to change either. Men brings the necessary amount of nuance to a film that very easily could have been devoid of it. It’s more than a surface-level exploration — its images are striking and evocative, its characters are deep and grotesquely true to life, and its ideas beg to be thought about, discussed, and looked into.