What is it about writer/director Alex Garland? He’s a man who continually comes up with great ideas, but from his collected works, I’d be hard pressed to pick out one film that’s truly satisfying. Men is a good case in point. For a good two thirds of this atmospheric folk horror tale, I’m absolutely loving it.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) has recently been through a tough time. She’s mourning her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), and is haunted by the idea that he’s committed suicide because she wanted to divorce him. Badly in need of respite, she heads off to a remote country guesthouse in the hope that a bit of solitude will help to heal her wounds. There, she is greeted by the owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), a plummy, officious sort who playfully chides her for helping herself to an apple from his tree when she arrives. ‘Forbidden fruit and all that.’
Harper decides to take a walk in the countryside, (in a glorious extended sequence that really shows off the skills of cinematographer, Rob Hardy) and begins to think that she may be on the road to recovery. But then she has a spooky encounter in an abandoned railway tunnel and shortly thereafter, is terrorised by a naked man, who she thinks, may be stalking her.
As she encounters more of the local population (nearly all of them male), she begins to realise that this isn’t going to be the peaceful sojourn she’s been hoping for…
You’ll already have read that the film’s big conceit is that every male character (except for James) is played by Rory Kinnear – and played brilliantly, I might add, his creations ranging from a deliciously sinister local priest to a troubled teenage boy. Buckley too is terrific, in a challenging role where she is obliged to do most of her emoting in silence.
The film’s subtext would be perfectly clear even without the massive clue offered in its title. All of Kinnear’s characters are examples of toxic masculinity, the essence instilled from birth and manifested in different ways – in sarcasm, in outmoded chivalric beliefs and, sometimes, in outright violence. These men all stem from the same poisoned root. The idea is perfectly expressed in the film’s first two thirds and no viewer will be in any doubt about Garland’s intentions.
So why, I ask myself, does he decide, in the film’s final stretch, to double down on the message, presenting an extended body-horror climax that tells us pretty much what we already know. I feel as though I’m being bludgeoned repeatedly over the head with the same premise, as though I can’t be trusted to appreciate its meaning.
And then, there’s the final bit, which without any warning throws a handful of doubt into the mix, obfuscating that message and ensuring that I leave the cinema feeling confused.
At any rate, it’s a disappointing conclusion to a film that has me hooked from the start.