Review: Alex Garland’s latest freakout delves into the evil that ‘Men’ do

A woman in a large sweater grasps a fruit growing from a tr
Jessie Buckley in the movie “Men.”
(Kevin Baker)
Share via

The protagonist of “Men” is a woman. Her name is Harper, and she’s just witnessed a terrible tragedy — the death of her husband, possibly by suicide — and fled their London apartment for a few days’ retreat in the distant countryside. Cycling through grief, relief, unease, panic, wonder and horror, she at least has the good fortune to be played by Jessie Buckley, an actor who holds you (not for the first time) with her startling emotional immediacy and seemingly limitless range. Alas, Harper also has the misfortune of anchoring the latest cinematic phantasmagoria from Alex Garland, a writer and director who likes to play sinister mind games with characters and audiences alike.

Calling your movie “Men” might qualify as one such mind game, especially in the context of a story where men are total slime — quite literally, in the movie’s spectacularly gooey third act. But I’m getting ahead of the plot, and also perpetuating the narrowness of the discourse that is likely to swirl around “Men’s” unforeseeable, un-unseeable final moments. The earlier passages are nearly as astonishing to behold, and no less troubling to think about. Garland draws on standard thriller conventions and concepts — a stalker scenario, a slasher set-piece, a body-horror climax — but nothing about what he’s trying to say is easy to pinpoint or summarize.

For your safety

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials.

It begins with the first of a few ominous flashbacks to the day that Harper’s husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), plummeted to his death from the high-rise flat just above theirs. The two lock gazes as he drops past their window in sickening slow-motion; Harper, you’ll notice, has a bloody nose. Certain art-house-horror-loving minds might recall the similarly grisly prologue of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” — a connection reinforced by Harper’s sudden, traumatized retreat into a forest primeval where a lot of Edenic symbolism and gender-confrontational violence await. (A lot of beauty too, courtesy of Rob Hardy’s sharp, crystalline photography and the doomy choral menace of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score.)


The country house that Harper has rented for a few days looks spacious, beautiful and idyllic, even if there are none-too-subtle warning signs in the blood-red walls and the apple tree growing in the front yard. “Forbidden fruit,” jokes the house’s owner, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), just in case the allusion wasn’t obvious enough. A disquietingly awkward fellow, Geoffrey gives Harper an initial tour of the property, all the while peppering her with dumb quips and invasive questions about her marital status. There are a lot of men like him in “Men,” and I again mean that literally. As Harper settles in, explores the woods and video-chats with a sympathetic girlfriend (Gayle Rankin), we start to notice that the various men she encounters all appear to be the same person — man-ifestations, if you will, of the same malevolent force.

And Kinnear plays them all with virtuoso skill, giving an array of distinct performances offset by clever variations in costume, hair, accent and vocal inflection. Every one of these men is his own kind of nightmare. There’s the village priest who listens intently to Harper’s story before placing an unsolicited hand on her knee, and also the adolescent boy (Kinnear aided by some ingenious digital trickery) who verbally harasses her in a churchyard. Most alarmingly, there’s the silent stalker who turns up stark naked in the woods and then follows her back to the house, setting up a terrifically shivery scene in which Harper is briefly, blissfully unaware of what’s transpiring just outside her window. (Watch the windows in “Men” carefully, both for the frightening visions they reveal and the equally eerie images they reflect back.)

By the time Harper steps into a pub full of Kinnears, you might flash back on “Being John Malkovich,” with its disquietingly funny multitude-of-Malkoviches set-piece, or perhaps the animated “Anomalisa,” in which every supporting role was voiced by Tom Noonan. The resemblances to Charlie Kaufman’s brand of mind-bending absurdity are telling, and not just because Buckley recently starred in Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” another movie that seemed to pit her against the phantom projections of an overweening male mind. It’s as if there were something about Buckley’s openness and unassuming warmth on screen that inspires certain directors to use her as a dramatic counterweight, even a corrective, to all manner of boorish behavior.

She is, of course, still being used, even if it’s to an aesthetically and politically admirable end. And if Buckley is wholly convincing as a woman being repeatedly attacked by an omnipresent enemy, Harper herself is underwritten to a degree that feels both understandable — she’s a blank slate in an allegorical construct — and frustratingly limited. The most salient detail about her seems to be her supremely toxic marriage — an interracial marriage, it’s worth noting, to a mentally troubled Black man, though it’s unclear what we’re meant to take away from that narrative choice (or the fact that Harper’s subsequent terrorizers are all white men). The flashbacks to Harper and James’ marriage, while tense and arresting, are arguably the story’s weakest link, mainly because they make explicit what is better left ambiguous.

A shirtless man with blood running down his face looks up from a hole in the ground
Rory Kinnear in the movie “Men.”
(Kevin Baker)

Harper is thus both empowered and disempowered; she’s a fighter, a survivor and sometimes a passive observer. And Garland, as her male creator, does not necessarily exempt himself from the implications of his movie’s blunt, accusatory title. Still, he is very much on his heroine’s side. He has, in a sense, been working his way toward “Men” for a while now, having previously written and directed the feminist, futurist shockers “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation.” Both those movies put gender codes and genre conventions smartly into play, taking traditionally male-molded fantasies of creation and destruction and firmly handing women the narrative reins. Both also make subversive use of containment and isolation, trapping their characters in remote settings while also opening up rich new dimensions of technological and evolutionary possibility.

While “Men” shares plenty of thematic DNA with its predecessors, its gender politics are both more overt and more opaque. The #MeToo overtones are hard to miss, especially with the loathsome figure of Kinnear’s priest — a stand-in for every clergyman who’s ever turned to the cloth to bury his sexual desires, and also every religious institution that’s ever blamed a woman for her husband’s abuse. But Western religion is hardly Garland’s sole focus here. Among Harper’s more intriguing discoveries is a set of stone carvings, centuries-old pagan artifacts whose various abstract meanings — sex and fertility, birth and rebirth — become flesh and blood in “Men’s” climactic maelstrom (male-strom?) of images.

That finale throws an awful lot at you: flickering lights and frenzied pursuits; gaping wounds that resemble sexual orifices; maniacal grins and grotesque bodily expulsions that feel indebted to modern cinema’s scariest Davids (Lynch and Cronenberg). But as with “Annihilation” before it, the more surreal “Men” gets, the less frightening and more melancholy it becomes; it’s as if the movie were peeling back the skin of its chosen subject to reveal the diseased, writhing and frankly pitiable mess underneath. And Garland, like a coroner performing an autopsy, surveys his specimen with clinical rigor, gallows humor and the faintest hint of sorrow. Men are the worst. But “Men” is still something to see.


Rating: R for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images and language

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: In general release