I have a distinct feeling that Alex Garland planted things in Men, the writer-director’s new film starring Jessie Buckley and a bevy of Rory Kinnears, which I have not entirely picked up on. Namely, allusions to religion and mythology which fly outside my knowledge structures. Yet what I did understand about Men, what was left after those allusions are stripped away and narrative and theme remain, was altogether so blunt and superficial that I in moments thought I was watching a parody of a specific breed of arthouse film. A parody of the exact film Men is.
This is not a case of I didn’t understand the film, therefore I don’t like it. On the contrary, my lack of comprehension to the little details are what kept me hanging on to this film as the tension of the first act gave way to clearly symbolic repetition in the second act and finally a deflation of any serious meditation the film was going for in its final act. The reason Men did not work for me, despite it falling squarely into genre categories that I am constantly drawn to, is that the devil in the details feels like an obfuscation of an otherwise rudimentary and tedious film.
Men begins with a tragic death, that of Harper Marlowe’s (Buckley) husband James (Paapa Essiedu). The couple had been in the process of a messy separation, wherein James threatened Harper that he would end his own life if she left him. That she would be at fault if he followed through with it. Shades of this troubling manipulation of emotions follow Harper to her new rental in the countryside. There, she finds a series of men, who all appear to her similarly (and who are all portrayed by Kinnear), most of whom treat her less than adequately.
Each of these characters works to portray different facets of a recognizable whole, different manifestations of the hegemonic masculinity which installs and reinforces patriarchy. The eponymous men blame the victim and, with differing outward-facing attitudes, condemn Harper for actions which were outside of her control. This is what (I believe) Men is about, but, beyond giving a face to the concept (literally), the film seems to have little to say about what it is representing nor its protagonist’s emotional baggage.
I am a big fan of Jessie Buckley, and she is only helping this movie with her presence in it. Unfortunately, what she is given to do in this is slight and lacks nuance, particularly as the film moves into its later acts. Her performance works best in the more grounded and visceral flashback sequences. These flashbacks, though, are arguably redundant. It is one of those uncommon instances where I would have preferred telling to showing in the storytelling, as Harper retelling her traumatic experience to the vicar is a more resonant moment than the flashbacks themselves.
Kinnear’s role is the one that is given the most meat on the bone. And he does an adept job at presenting unique personalities for each character. The visual conceit of Kinnear playing multiple characters is a clever one — it made for a compelling trailer, at least — and it is where the themes of the film carry the most depth. At the same time, this depth is relative. It is something of a conceptual depth, in that Garland poses an intriguing set of ideas without a potent examination of those ideas.
I think that most people will talk about two sequences in this film. One is the delightfully eerie set piece in the tunnel, with Buckley echoing pitches back on herself (audio cues which reflect the leitmotifs of repeated action and cycles). It is the most canny and elegantly-staged scene in the film, by far.
The other is the climax, which some will find disturbing or provocative, but I found tiresome. For a climax so absurdly excessive in its body horror and pronounced in its, let’s say, can’t-look-away fascination with anatomy, what was most shocking to me was that I had no meaningful reaction to it. As the scene slowly and cyclically makes text out of subtext, I could only think about how on the nose it all appeared. Perhaps it is a fittingly overt climax to a thoroughly overt film. Regardless, it is a rare instance where I feel compelled to condemn style over substance filmmaking.
For all my gripes with Garland’s script, his filmmaking is as effective as ever. The imagery is evocative. The direction within individual scenes makes for thrilling set pieces. The sound design is largely chilling, as well. But I struggle to find substance in this stylish piece of artsy horror. The film’s thin commentary about victim blaming and cycles of patriarchal oppression rings hollow within the terse genre exercise Garland has crafted.
As always, thanks for reading!