With his new horror movie Men, Alex Garland firmly establishes himself as one of the most distinctive filmmakers working today. His previous work as a writer, which includes The Beach and Dredd, is complemented perfectly by his very accomplished first steps as a director, with the sci-fi movies Ex Machina and Annihilation. But now, Garland has pushed his boundaries further than ever before, and it’s a thrill to watch.
Despite initially receiving widespread praise, with many admiring just how bold and bizarre Men is, the film has more recently encountered a mixed-to-negative reception. The idea of a movie being divisive is something that always appeals to me. I love to see filmmakers throwing caution to the wind and taking risks, and Garland has certainly done that with Men.
In Men, after witnessing her husband’s brutal death, Harper (Jessie Buckley) heads to a remote village in the country to heal her wounds. There, she encounters several men (all played by Rory Kinnear), who exhibit varying degrees of odd and threatening behaviour towards her, and her peaceful retreat soon becomes a phantasmagorical hell ride.
Rather surprisingly, the tone of the film is fairly light to begin with. Geoffrey – perhaps the finest of Kinnear’s creations in this movie – is the landlord of the country home Harper is staying in, and he offers plenty of comedic value with his quirky, awkward mannerisms. A lot of the opening scenes are genuinely laugh out loud funny, but unsettling nonetheless.
It doesn’t take long for the false sense of security to be broken though, with harrowing flashbacks and a tense, Alice in Wonderland style trip into the woods allowing the darkness to bleed into the story. Once the second act kicks in we enter full-on horror mode.
Jump scares are utilised throughout with terrifying efficacy, striking imagery is seared into your mind, and gory, grisly body horror ramps up the stakes. It’s an attack on the senses as much as it is on Harper, and not one for the faint-hearted at times, but if you’re looking for a batshit crazy, unflinching descent into insanity, get in line.
Jessie Buckley is characteristically magnetic, endearing, and convincing. After starring in a string of dark, bleak tales (such as I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Beast), she has undoubtedly proven herself to be one of the most talented performers in the world right now. With Men, Buckley dives into the world of horror for the first time and is a captivating protagonist.
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But, it’s Rory Kinnear who steals the show. He plays several different characters, all weirder than the last, and he moves between them so skilfully. He pivots from funny, to flippant, to utterly fearsome without breaking a sweat. He’s a man possessed, almost literally, and it’s an astounding display of the actor’s range and previously unseen ability to go to very dark places.
On the technical side, the visuals are typically crisp and colourful, as you’d expect from Garland’s portfolio of rich, science fiction worlds. But, when night falls on the village and the terror is unleashed, shadows and light, or absence of, are employed magnificently. Garland combines clever horror framing, intriguing filler shots that help paint the picture of impending dread, and uncomfortable imagery which plunges you right into the heart of this surrealist nightmare.
The sound design is impeccable, too; from the natural soundscapes of trees, birds, and most effectively, the rain, to horror staples like screams and shrieks and things that go bump in the night. Jessie Buckley’s vocal echoes in the mysterious railway tunnel (that you may recall from the trailer) are even more haunting in the context of the film, as are the various musical cues that intersect the horror.
The narrative is probably where Men will lose some of its audience. It’s bold, original, balls-to-the-wall stuff; ambiguous and complex, yet also guilty of being a little too on the nose at times. The ever-shifting tone is methodically guided through uncomfortable humour and intense home invasion, before twisting the knife with ultra-violent, mind-bending allegories.
For me, Garland is now three for three when it comes to directing feature films, and he deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as people like Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, and Jordan Peele as one of the most exciting voices in horror right now. While Ex Machina is arguably stronger, and the scale of Annihilation is more impressive, Men signals a real step up in terms of Garland having a more unique cinematic voice.
My advice: go into this as blind as you can, and brace yourself for one of the weirdest, most ambitious third acts in the history of cinema. How you react to that, particularly the climactic sequence, will really dictate your overall enjoyment of Men.
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If it’s a toss-up between formulaic blockbuster fodder, or provocative, creative pieces like Men, I know where my money is going. This kind of unique, bold filmmaking is becoming more and more rare, and we should celebrate it when we see it.
Men is now playing in US theatres, and arrives in UK cinemas June 1.
Ultra-violent, mind-bending allegories and one of the most ambitious third acts in the history of cinema make Men a most provocative and creative piece of filmmaking. Love it or hate it, we should celebrate the risks Alex Garland has taken here.