Movie Review: Men
CONTENT WARNING: This film contains frank talk of suicide.
Men is, ostensibly, a film about Harper who has traveled to the English countryside in order to heal from the trauma of her husband's sudden death. Her respite is interrupted when a man, or maybe a supernatural entity, begins to stalk her. Of course, no one in authority truly believes she's in any danger and dismiss her claims. That's when the man/entity comes calling for her. The film stars Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, and Gayle Rankin. The film is written and directed by Alex Garland.
The word ostensibly appears in the opening paragraph because everything in this film is not what it seems. The metaphor here is about the myriad of ways men put the burden of their happiness on women's shoulders. Or it's about the dozens of other micro-aggressions women encounter when they just attempt to establish a base line human connection with men. The truth is that the message is significantly muddled because while Men touches on experiences, thoughts, fears, and anxieties women have it is still from an outsider's perspective.
What makes films like this effective and affecting is when a filmmaker brings their personal experience to bear. Films like Get Out, The Babadook, and Jennifer's Body bring metaphors out of their horror more naturally, more empathetically, but with Men filmmaker Alex Garland's focus moves toward the supernatural horror of the situation which is darkly gruesome to behold. His mind is on the grotesque rather than the grotesquery of the social problem he is attempting to present. As the final battle between Harper and her demon(s) wanes, the grotesquery becomes banal. We see it come across Harper's face as the third or fourth iteration of this sequence takes place, she just looks at it bored. The finale of the film is like that, it just doesn't resolve and we're left to shrug in our seats as to what the meaning we should take away from Men.
Though, Alex Garland is a very visually attuned filmmaker. He and cinematographer Rob Hardy have created some of the most dynamic sequences. There is a point when Harper walks up to a tunnel built under an old train track. Harper stands and stares into the darkness. Slowly the camera zooms into the void until all we see is the back of Harper against the darkness. It's a really incredible image and more harrowing than most of what comes after. There are several awe inspiring scenes like this throughout that made me stay in my seat even as I was lost as to the point of it all.
The production design is also truly remarkable. Designer Mark Digby and his team have created a space that really pops out of the screen. There are gorgeously red walls, lush green hedges, fields, trees, and moss, and a blue hued kitchen. The film is awash with color and light. The scene in the church plays beautifully with the light off the stained glass. It warms the cold stone walls of the building. It's at the church where Harper meets the vicar.
Of the many men the brilliant Rory Kinnear inhabits, the vicar is the most intriguing. He's the one to listen most closely to Harper's story, he's the one to advance the worst, most toxic, ideas about Harper's situation. Kinnear plays him with that banality of the shoulder to cry on. He lets the subtlety of the vicar's intention play out in his movements and physicality while he plays the mind games of a man who's aiming for something else entirely. Kinnear has been so good for so long, but Men is a showcase for his immeasurable talent at creating and inhabiting a character and in this case multiple characters at a time. He and Jessie Buckley, as Harper, are brilliant.
I wanted to like Men a lot. I was on board as the film progressed, but as I sit here several hours later and try to piece together a coherent theory of what the filmmakers really mean by any of the sequences and scenes, I just fall through another hole. The coherence of the narrative needs to be there for me to truly enjoy the final product. I just keep coming back to wondering if the outsider's perspective truly works for this narrative and I can't see that it does. Men is one to avoid if you're not already in tune to the idea of gore, grotesque, or a subtlety of message that never lands anywhere but on the subjective. I wouldn't even recommend it on purely aesthetic enjoyment.