men. It’s a great title coupled with a witty poster (a menacing man has the word stuck in his eyes like a warning label), presenting a frank and urgent context for Alex Garland’s latest horror offering. Like the writer/director with Ex Machina and Annihilation, Garland will explore gender dynamics through genre tools, delving into real-world horrors while manifesting their nightmarish extremes on screen. men follows this form, but unfortunately has less to say than his sisters.
art house darling jessie buckley (wild rose, the lost daughter, i’m thinking about ending things) plays garland’s latest tormented heroine, the newly widowed harpist, who travels four hours from her life in the city to a remote country mansion where she hopes the quiet, rural splendor will help her heal. no such luck; this is a place infested with men. and they are all out to destroy her, her sense of security, her mental health, and her bodily autonomy.
It begins with irritating microaggressions by Geoffrey, the rental landlord who asks intrusive questions about her marital status, playfully scolds her, and indulges in a vaguely creepy dude’s low-boiler kind of misogyny. but her peace is shattered when a stalker, bloodied, naked and looking at her, interrupts a happy walk in the woods. a male police officer is of little help, suggesting that she is in no real danger. a bearded bartender is bored with her story, while two local thugs frown. even the vicar offers no comfort, only pain, and a few unwelcome touches. strangely, all these men share the same face. English actor Rory Kinnear plays all the parts (with relish!), including that of a curse-spewing schoolboy, thanks to a CGI composition (which looks jarring in the wrong way).
the first act is based on a misogyny so common that geoffrey’s insensitive comments seem like jokes. they are clumsily insulting, but not threatening. So maybe we laugh because we have all witnessed such awkwardness? however, as the aggressions of other men increase, the tension grows. The big house doesn’t feel like a getaway, but rather a maze that Harper can’t escape from these menacing men. the dark pink clothing that she favors highlights her as “feminine” and thus “other,” making her a stark white against the violently green landscape. Her only lifeline, her video call best friend (a razor-sharp Gayle Rankin), is interrupted by a strange glitch that freezes frames on a screaming woman’s face.
garland uses the framework of popular terror to hang its narrative. In this subgenre, a hero of the city, a place of modernity, order, and reason, is thrown into an ancient and untamed environment, where the locals live in superstition and the supernatural. The twist on this standard is that Harper’s reasoning tells her that men shouldn’t harass her for no reason, they shouldn’t dismiss her feelings about their own experiences, and they shouldn’t intrude on her body as if it were theirs. Right. except you don’t need to go to a remote rural town to run into men like that. They are, as Harper sees in every Rory Kinnear role, everywhere.
In Ex Machina, Garland wowed audiences with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a mild-mannered hero with a sharp mind, a searching eye, and a good heart. He sought to save the “princess” of this sci-fi fairy tale, the android coded as female Ava (Alicia Vikander), from the tyrannical “king,” the tech billionaire (Oscar Isaac) who invented her. However, as the 2014 film progresses, there are more and more hints that Caleb is not the hero, but rather a white knight more interested in proving his own worth than doing good for Ava. Garland used the default setting for a movie lead, a straight, white male of reasonable good looks, to trick us into thinking this was the character we should support, only to reveal that Caleb isn’t as noble as we’d assume.
in the men, maybe it’s meant to be daring to put the audience in the hiking boots of a woman plagued by horrible men. To his credit, Garland dresses the film in lush images of natural beauty and horror of the human body. It’s not just the men’s leering eyes and various false teeth that are unnerving, but also their evolution into a shape-shifting beast that feels like John Carpenter and Ridley Scott’s nightmare child. but for all that sinister spectacle, the men’s message is disappointingly basic. Instead of deeply engaging with the experience of her female character, Garland gives birth to flashy, flashy horror sequences to spoon-feed, presumably to a cis-male audience, a vague concept of misogyny and the trauma and terror it brings to daily. and hey, it’s 2022, when people who can get pregnant are still being threatened with loss of autonomy over their own bodies. so it’s not that that message isn’t relevant. It’s frustrating that, as sincere as Garland is, he doesn’t have much to say. yes, being a woman in a world of men is scary. what else?
Asking male audience members to engage with a woman is not new territory. garland has done it himself in annihilation. But here he feels flat, not because of how he presents himself to Harper, but because of how his world is. Buckley is fascinating as a woman who battles not only this swarm of men, but also her thunderous feelings of regret, grief, rage and fear. But the path she walks is well-trodden, even if Garland has built some ghastly landmarks along the way.
While I was in the middle of it all, my heart was pounding. My eyes swept the windows behind our headstrong heroine, watching her when no one else would. I screamed in terror from a cleverly executed jump scare that plays into a fairly common nightmare among women I know. I got hooked. I was on the trip… but I was left wanting. while that final act is full of violence, gore, and bizarre body horror, it lacks the daring to make a statement. so in the end, its title feels less like a threat and more like a tired moan: men.
men opens in theaters on May 20.