'Men': A Gutwrenching Horror Film That Has Big Ideas, But Comes Up Short
One of the more memorable moviegoing experiences I've ever had was when I went to see acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky's divisive film mother! in 2017. For the uninitiated, mother! follows a woman who lives a quiet life with her husband, only to find it upended by the arrival of certain guests. The film also functions as an allegory for the destruction of the Earth and the book of Genesis, and has plenty of strange imagery throughout. I remember this experience, due to the sheer confusion I and the other people and the audience had at certain moments, and the mix of anger and frustration clearly voiced by people as they exited the theater. I wasn't nearly as angry at the film as these people were, but I did find the film rather perplexing and while I appreciated what Aronofsky was going for, I couldn't help but be very mixed on the film as a whole. Fast forward to the present day, where I went to see acclaimed director Alex Garland's latest film Men and found myself having a sense of deja vu throughout the screening. While these films are different in terms of their overall message, they are both dark explorations of heavy themes that are slow burning and use grotesque imagery to get their point across. They both also end on a note that is sure to confuse many viewers, and are guaranteed to divide audiences. But the biggest similarity for me is that while I appreciate what Alex Garland is going for, I can't help but feel torn on the film as a whole.
I was very much looking forward to this film, as I love Garland's past two directorial efforts, Ex Machina and Annihilation. Between these, and his prolific screenwriting career prior to them, he has made a name for himself as one of our more gifted filmmakers, especially when it comes to sci-fi. The trailers for Men definitely gave the impression that this would be a bit more stripped down compared to his previous films, and that it would lean more into horror. I went in blind for the most part beyond this, as I didn't want to have anything spoiled for me beyond what I saw in the trailers. I feel that this is a great strategy if you go see this film, as it allowed the more shocking moments of the film to land effectively. I have to admit that the film is made rather well, and it's clear that Garland had a specific vision for what he wanted to accomplish. Despite this, Men finds itself held back by what it is trying to say, as the themes feel a little jumbled, and the lack of subtlety in exploring them takes away from the mystery Garland is wanting to cultivate.
One of the things I appreciate about Garland's method of storytelling is that he isn't one to spoonfeed you every single detail. In fact, he tends to leave several things up to the audience's interpretation, and leaves them to get swallowed up in the wilder aspects of his work. I feel that Annihilation is especially effective in this regard, as it leaves the audience with plenty to chew on, and has several memorable moments that catch the viewer off guard on first viewing. Men has some of these elements, but they aren't used nearly as well. The themes feel so heavy handed here, and ultimately aren't nearly as deep as Garland seems to think they are. He does give the audience some ideas to consider, and the film has no shortage of moments that will confuse and shock audiences, but it just doesn't land as well as it does in Garland's previous films. It's a classic case of getting what the message is, but not particularly liking the execution of it.
To sum up the plot briefly, a young woman named Harper retreats to a house in the English countryside for a holiday after suffering a tragedy. While she initially enjoys her stay, she soon finds that something isn't right, and begins to be haunted by the men in the village she is staying in. The film makes things even more unsettling by having all of the men portrayed by Rory Kinnear, who is fantastic here. Kinnear has long been a well-regarded character actor, but this might be his best work yet. He embodies each of the different men he plays so specifically, and truly shows his range over the course of the film. Jessie Buckley is also excellent as Harper, although I feel that her character is lacking some depth. Luckily, Buckley is an incredibly talented actor, and is able to fill in the gaps left in the script. She is very much dialed in here, and is able to pull off the fear and frustration her character experiences nicely.
While Buckley does shine, the film does seem to be missing a woman's perspective on specific details. This is a film about grief, guilt, trauma, and toxic masculinity, but it doesn't have a ton of nuance in exploring these. It does nail its depiction of toxic masculinity, but the rest of the themes are so closely tied to Harper and her experiences that we really need a woman's perspective for them to come across well. Garland makes an effort, but it feels a bit bland overall. Yes, Garland has proven himself to be a great screenwriter on his own, but it definitely could have benefitted the film if he had collaborated with a female screenwriter to nail some of the finer points of Harper's character.
It's wild for me to say that the script is one of the film's biggest shortcomings given Garland's other work, but thankfully, the technical elements pick up some of the slack. The film is beautifully shot by frequent Garland collaborator Rob Hardy, who captures the almost idyllic nature of the countryside at the beginning of the film, while slowly devolving into horror, and using the camera to linger on the film's more unsettling attributes. Some shots seem a bit too glossy for my liking, but that's more of a nitpick than anything. I also liked the score quite a bit, as Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow continue to show that they are some of the most inventive composers in the business. The ethereal vocal arrangements that work together with the simmering score is absolutely solid, and works wonders in the film's more suspenseful moments.
The moment that will likely stick with most people who see this film is a sequence that occurs in the film's last 10 minutes. I won't reveal what happens, but it is one of the wildest things I have ever seen in a movie. It is a stomach-churning finale that is full of blood, body horror, and strange imagery, and leads to the film's ultimate statement. I will gladly admit that the finale is well crafted, but the point it lands on is so strange, and further complicates the themes the film is exploring. It just feels like a small let-down after such a visceral scene, and it feels like Garland should have opted for something more ambiguous or he should have been more finite with the film's final moments.
As is the case with Garland's previous directorial efforts, Men is a film that will likely stick with me for a while. But while Ex Machina and Annihilation had me thinking about the film's strengths, and piecing together certain plot and character elements, this film has me more inclined to ponder specific choices that didn't work for me in this film. I still will likely think about some specific plot details, and maybe with time I might come around on certain elements of the film, but for now, I just feel mixed on the film as a whole. It does some things very well, but the things it doesn't do very well are hard to ignore and take away from the overall experience. This is a bit of a disappointment for me, as I really enjoyed Garland's previous films, but I can't help but commend him for at least trying to do something different and making some big swings. I can see why others would like this more than I did, and I can see why others would hate this more than I did, But for me, I am firmly in the middle as of writing this review. Regardless, this is a film that will linger in my memory for both good and bad reasons, and will likely be one of the most divisive films of 2022.