Director Alex Garland established a distinct penchant for surrealistic genre fare in just two features, Ex Machina and Annihilation. In his latest, Men, the filmmaker tries his hand at more straightforward horror, imbuing folk horror with his distinct style. It results in a more elusive effort that bides its time with a measured unsettling until an insane, unforgettable third act.
Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to the English countryside to heal and start anew in the wake of her husband James’ (Paapa Essiedu) untimely death. The estate’s owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), awkwardly gives her a tour of the place and then leaves her to get settled. Harper’s plans for peace and quiet get shattered quickly, though, when a walk through the neighboring woods catches the attention of someone who appears to stalk her. Unsettling dread escalates into a full-blown nightmare for Harper, forcing her to confront fears internal and external.
Garland takes a more streamlined approach to Harper’s story. Though straightforward, her past unfurls slowly, spliced with an increasingly precarious present. Harper’s walks into the nearby village result in various encounters with men, all played by Kinnear. Each new meeting and conversation personifies different anxieties or fears and gender division.
What’s less straightforward is the imagery and symbolism laden throughout. Harper wears pinks and earthy tones, and the cottage’s walls are blood red. It’s contrasted by the lush greenery outside. The Green Man, floating dandelion seeds, an apple tree, and pitch-black tunnels in the middle of an emerald green forest all hint at larger fertility-heavy mythology. There’s an intentional enigmatic quality to the overarching nightmare Harper finds herself in, one far larger than the domestic trauma that led her to this point. Garland wants audiences to connect those bread crumbs on their own. Men‘s intangible, arthouse style will polarize.
Buckley brings Harper’s intrinsic conflict to the surface with deft and understated nuance. This protagonist is at war with herself, struggling with feelings of guilt and remorse that clashes with a newfound sense of freedom. The relief she feels is at odds with lingering questions stemming from tragedy. That Buckley is the grounded character against Kinnear’s complicated juggling act of multiple characters means he consistently threatens to steal the film from under her. Especially considering the places that he takes those characters. Where Buckley impresses, Kinnear astounds and pushes boundaries; the actor makes a strong case for why he’s one of the best working today.
As for the horror, Garland opts for a slow build of unsettling dread. It coils with mounting pressure, increasing in scares and intensity until it explodes in an insane, jaw-dropping third act that veers into Grand Guignol. It’s an audacious finale full of “holy shit” moments that satisfies from a horror standpoint, bringing the overarching themes full circle. Garland is less successful in bringing Harper’s arc to a satisfying or fully coherent close.
It’s ultimately how Garland tries to marry Harper’s history to the large picture that muddies up a gloriously unhinged piece of folk horror. Garland delivers one jaw-dropping showstopper and demonstrates a knack for dread and atmosphere. The nightmare fuel provided alone ensures Men is a success regardless of its elusiveness, but Buckley and Kinnear are powerhouses that keep you firmly in their grip. Garland’s adherence to the abstract will be divisive, but those who don’t mind enigmatic descents into surrealistic, gruesome horror will find this a trip worth taking.
Men released in theaters on May 20, 2022.