The idea of a “thought-provoking” work of art can be so subjective and nigh undefinable. “Tragic” or “hilarious” is also equally personal, but something that really sticks with you can be such a circumstantial, intimate thing; I’ve grappled longer with the nostalgic melancholy of Porco Rosso than any Ingmar Bergman film (I still love Berg, man). On the opposite side of things, as an artist, it’s tricky to try to convey something specific to your audience without being hamfisted. We all like to give Crash a tough time for spelling out its list of moral do’s and don’t’s, but to craft a narrative between symbolism and structure is, as I said, tricky. And now, Men, the latest from Alex Garland. Something of a folksy horror film, to whose impact tacking on any other cutesy descriptors would diminish, lemme just cut to the chase before things get weird.
Director: Alex Garland
Release Date: May 20, 2022
Following the shocking suicide of her husband (Paapa Essiedu), Harper (Jessie Buckley) retreats to an idyllic holiday home amidst the verdancy of the English countryside, hoping to clear her mind and take some time for herself. Greeted by the affable and chatty old sport of a landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), Harper is mostly left to her lonesome as she goes for walks and eases along. Until, of course, strange things begin to happen. Not the least of which is an encounter with a quite naked, seemingly-disoriented man who follows her out of the woods. And we go from there.
To its immediate credit, Garland doesn’t play into what the premise, in a line of description or the teasing of a trailer, might imply. Buckley’s performance is one of recent, serious trauma, but never does Men drown us (and Harper) in self-pity or misery. Nor does the strange, creepy encounter with the nude man go for easy scares. Men is a horror film in the ways it creeps and unsettles, eventually, but Garland’s restraint lies in beginning this strange fable with parts moving early on, yet never overtly trying to “get” the audience; he doesn’t exhaust you with terror from the onset, even though the prospect of a nude man stalking a woman through the woods is, indeed, pretty freakin’ terrifying. It’s tough to talk about Men any further than this, plot-wise, because to experience the places it goes is part of what you will love or loathe about Garland’s latest. My line to friends about the film, they knowing me to be a huge fan of his previous films (and Devs, his under-discussed FX miniseries), is that I really enjoyed Men, but I’m not yet sure if I liked it.
The craft of the film is superb. The stripped-down cast and locations could be chalked up to pandemic-era production, but the story fits the setting. The locations themselves are particularly atmospheric, Harper’s rented home of respite is absolutely gorgeous (coming from someone who wouldn’t dream of owning a home that size), but painted with evocative red walls and some wide windows, neither of which is immediately indicative of horrors to come. Sometimes, in films, you see a dark alley or a creep mansion and think “Welp, someone’s gonna die there,” but not so with Men! The spaces we see in Garland’s film have the propensity for normalcy, which is perhaps what makes things so brutally tense when we start to see things that are absolutely not normal encroach upon Harper’s world.
It’s the creeping weirdness of Men that ultimately leaves me puzzled and not yet certain how much I love it. Whereas Annihilation featured a sort of Apocalypse Now trek into a fungal version of 2001’s Star Gate, for a crude analogy, any of the mind-bending visuals or quiet confusion there had a tangible explanation if one were to think about it. When Men gets strange, besides musing along with the film’s ideas about a world of misogyny, it sometimes feels like “odd for the sake of odd”; truly, there were bits I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of. And yet, let this be my biggest spoiler, there’s no cop-out here.
It wasn’t all just a dream, by the time the credits roll; Harper is not hallucinating (most of it), nor has she stumbled into M Night Shymalan’s Village. The insistence on marrying weird, abstract genre bizarreness with what seems to be a grounded world would indicate that Men isn’t very surreal at all, as some might suggest. The tangibility of the things that haunt Harper would indicate how very real the danger is. Though while I’m all for a little ambiguity, I left Men wishing for a little more clarity, perhaps, regarding what I’d just seen. This apple’s ripe for a second viewing, me thinks.
The throughline of Alex Garland’s directorial work, I’m beginning to see, is the deeply personal meeting the highly speculative. His characters are scarred by trauma, often violent and recent, thrust into circumstances of unfathomable science-fiction or intellectual headiness. The marriage of complicated what-if’s like a godlike computer algorithm or an incomprehensible extraterrestrial crossing paths with someone dealing with the most primal human emotions of grief makes for good storytelling, evidently. Men continues that trend, though whereas his other films look to explore their fantastic and speculative elements in an effort to “justify” the phantasmagoric visuals and setpieces, Garland’s latest is far murkier and less interested in giving a reason. For some, this may be appealing, but having come to love the clash of the deeply-complicated (yet explainable) ideas with the occasional thriller tropes and human drama of his previous work, I remained noncommittal on Garland’s film.
Still, as I said, Men was completely and entirely enjoyable to the very end. Whether it gives the audience enough to chew on, perhaps, is up for debate, but as a film that toes the line between allegory and adventure Garland’s technical merit continues to sharpen. And whether or not Men’s descent into folkloric fantasy or head-tripping doppelgangery is both too much and not enough, it’s clear that here’s a filmmaker who can create a mainstream, marketable “genre” film and still develop wholly original concepts and avoid pandering to what an audience might “want” or expect. Whoever’s giving Alex Garland money to make movies, we owe them a pint at the pub.