Alex Garland’s third feature film, Men, may seem at first like that annoying guy in art class who puts so much effort into looking and sounding like a genius that he simply must be all show. But then he presents his work and, oh crap, he has cool hair, says all the right things, acts like he beamed in from another galaxy—and his work kicks ass, too? Unfair.
There will be many who disagree. A lot of people don’t like leaving a movie asking “what the hell did I just see?” It’s a fair criticism, if clearly delineated stories are your bag. One should approach Men as if it were modal jazz: it isn’t so much about a hummable melody as it is about tone, color, mood, and the thrill of unexpected exploration within a set framework. To put it in a way the kids do: Men is vibes.
But disturbing vibes! Our story is set up rather quickly. Harper (Jessie Buckley) has rented a country house to collect her head after a traumatic experience. She witnessed her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) fall to his death outside their apartment. But not just witnessed it: the two locked eyes for an eternity as he plummeted, an inscrutable look on his face (is he shocked? is this intentional?) and one of pure terror on hers.
As the story moves backward and forward, the audience learns that Harper had just dropped a bomb on James: She’s leaving him. His response is to threaten suicide. “See? This is why I’m leaving you,” she argues. Back in the now, she’s getting settled into the enormous rural estate, with an equipped music room, bathroom giant tub, private orchard, and a room just for “brollies and wellies.” It’s a well-worn scenario of intense grief set somewhere lusciously photogenic, like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Peter Medak’s The Changeling—only this time extremely British.
Rory Kinnear plays the estate’s caretaker Geoffrey to the comedic hilt, sticking his front two teeth out and firing off little jokes that don’t land. (The performance, which is wonderful, is like something Hugh Laurie would have done back in A Bit of Fry & Laurie sketch comedy days.) His desire to put Harper at ease, naturally, does the exact opposite, but once he’s gone (reminding her there’s no need to lock doors round here) she settles in.
Like a good Englishwoman (even though she’s from London, and has a zillion-pound apartment with a River Thames view in the shadow of Tower Bridge) she loves a country walk on gravel paths and squishy farmland. But that’s where she encounters her first in a great many weird things.
After playing around with her echoing voice in an abandoned railway tunnel (can a human voice really echo like a Robert Fripp tape loop in a place like that, or is this Garland being creative?) she makes eye contact with a lumbering naked man covered in scratches. The next day the naked man comes to the house, and Garland shoots it like the moment in the first Halloween where only we see Michael Myers peeping through the windows—but he stretches this to a ludicrous degree. Garland takes that gag, grabs it by the throat, and chokes what remaining life is left in it.
This is the first indication that Men is something of a deranged masterpiece. Without being clever, like Scream or Cabin In The Woods, Garland riffs on what it means to be in a horror movie. It’s also around this point in the movie where the story essentially stops—or at least stops making sense. Once Harper calls the cops and they take the naked man away, she explores the Cotswolds-ish village a bit more. In time, one will recognize that every other character (the Vicar, the creepy boy, the bartender) are all played by Rory Kinnear. But there were two police officers, one male, one female. The female is not played by Kinnear. Clearly this all means something. What it means is open to interpretation.
As is the whole second half of the movie, which is a carnival of imagery mixing folk horror, Biblical allegory, and an anatomy textbook gone horribly, horribly wrong. Here’s where “from the director of Annihilation” is very much truth in advertising.
Whereas other movies merely dabble in surrealism—an incongruent montage here, a held frame in slow-motion as eerie music swells there—Men crosses the event horizon and allows itself to succumb. And what would even be the point in expressing the emotions of guilt and grief in concise, logical manner? It would be a lie, anyway. Viewers who admire when movies swing for the fences will cheer.
All of which, naturally, means many others will have their guard up, shout “what the fuck?!?” at the screen, and may even joke on the way out of the theater that they want their money back. That’s the way it is with a genuine work of art—especially the good ones.