Men Misses the Mark
If nothing else, writer-director Alex Garland is a premier purveyor of visual spectacle, a trait his latest film bears out. The winkingly titled Men offers up a buffet of imagery that intrigues, confuses, and terrifies in equal measure, all lusciously shot by regular Garland collaborator Rob Hardy. But while spectacle often suffices, Garland tends to set his sights higher, marrying his visual creativity with unsettlingly ambiguous ideas about the nature of humanity and its place in the cosmos. In previous directorial efforts Ex Machina and Annihilation, the marriage felt seamless, or close to it: the latter film in particular (while perhaps not as well received by the general public) has nestled itself deep in the recesses of my mind over the years. Unfortunately, when it comes to this sort of haunting cohesion, Men falls short of the high mark Garland has set for himself.
Jessie Buckley stars as Harper, a woman recovering from an unspeakable tragedy who seeks solace in a quiet rental in the English countryside. Externally a place of beauty — vibrant greenery, open fields, the like — but (as you’d expect) it quickly becomes apparent that something is deeply amiss. Ominous religious iconography and oddly menacing townspeople eventually give way to violent, supernatural horror, leaving Harper to fight for her life in a place where she finds herself seemingly both hated and desired.
On paper Men sounds good, maybe even great, but in execution it suffers not only due to creative flaws, but because of the current cinematic environment. We’ve talked about this over the years on this site, but the industry has reached — and exceeded — the oversaturation point for horror films that are explicitly “about trauma,” with Men distributor A24 one of the key figures in that excess. That’s not to say reckoning with trauma or grief isn’t a valid thematic underpinning — it’s been utilized exceptionally well plenty of times throughout the years across the genre. But the concept has become so pervasive that without a truly novel approach, it threatens to become even more tiresome with each new film relying on that emotional throughline.
To his credit, Garland clearly has larger ambitions with Men: the questions he poses about religion, patriarchal societies, and the nature and nurture of gender dynamics are all intriguing in their own right. But instead of burrowing their way under your skin, these themes never truly feel more than surface level, subsumed by the focus on Harper’s particular circumstances. In a vacuum that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but because the film comes across as wanting to be about so much more and to force you to wrestle with these broader, thornier ideas, it feels like a disappointment when the concepts don’t quite coalesce.
It doesn’t help that the themes that do rise to the forefront are handled so bluntly, hammered home incessantly without really seeming like part of a coherent artistic statement — or even that well thought out. Despite Buckley’s unimpeachable skill as a performer (on display here, to be clear), she’s let down by a narrative arc that ultimately feels reductive. Rory Kinnear has the juicer role, bringing both humor and horror to the film by playing every man Harper comes in contact with through us of a variety of wigs, teeth, and accent work, but even that creative decision — an interesting one, no doubt — ends up feeling simultaneously muddled and on-the-nose.
Now, there is plenty to appreciate about Men, from the performances to several genuinely horrifying setpieces to the overall aesthetic. But in a film like this, saddled with (from me at least, and maybe unfairly!) such a high bar to clear, the faults stand out like a sore thumb: questionable pacing, thematic clumsiness, and effects work that ranges from legitimately impressive to shockingly poor. Garland’s previous work has resulted in increased expectations for a filmmaker who has shown himself to have stratospheric potential, and while he may have come back down to earth with Men, the elements that work still work — here’s looking forward to more big swings in the future.