Alex Garland | 1hr 40min
There is little wonder that Alex Garland’s most recent dive into elusive, arthouse horror has been met with a polarising reception, given how far it departs from the realm of conventional plotting in favour of lush stylistic flourishes and absurdly puzzling imagery. Whatever flaws emerge in its unevenness can hardly be held against it given the cinematic ambition that runs deep in this nightmarish allegory, ever so gradually edging closer to a disturbing culmination of the patriarchal archetypes threaded through its fable-like narrative. In this way, there is a distinct flavour of European folklore that creeps into Men, haunting the green English thickets and cobbled stone roads of Cotson, the tiny rural village to which Harper retreats following the suicide of her abusive husband, James.
It becomes evident early on that there is something up with the men in this isolated town, being that they all share the same face. Perhaps Harper is just imagining this, warily holding them all with equal mistrust, though at no point in the film does she acknowledge this strange phenomenon. Maybe then they actually do all look alike, and she is failing to pick up on the red flags laid before her. Either way, the shared visage of the men in this seemingly womanless village is not mined so much for outright horror than it is for its eerie symbolism. We might initially believe them to be in some sort of clandestine fraternity, though later they manifest more as a shape-shifting ghost representing the many forms of toxic masculinity, from the repressed sexuality of a vicar, to a gaslighting police officer, and a young boy’s bitter reaction to rejection.
As Garland intersperses flashbacks to the day of James’ death, we begin to pick up on these personality traits in his own narcissistic persona, drawing implicit lines between her past and present. Within their London apartment overlooking the River Thames, Garland fills the space with a burning orange light, almost apocalyptic in tone and contrasting heavily with the verdant greens of the present-day narrative. The minutes immediately preceding and following his jump from an upper-storey balcony play out non-linearly in her mind, but it is the vision of his plummet which stands out in devastating slow-motion, as he passes by the window at the exact moment Harper is looking through it. The split second that they make eye contact horrifyingly stretches into oblivion, but perhaps the most surprising thing about it is the fear and regret written into his expression.
With a catalyst as specifically gut-wrenching as this to motivate Harper’s getaway, and the darkly spiritual examinations of gender that follow, Garland evokes Lars von Trier’s Antichrist as a significant stylistic and narrative influence, right down to the twisted Adam and Eve parallels flowing through both films. At first, the symbolism in Men is exceedingly blunt with the forbidden fruit being written into the dialogue between Harper and the owner of the holiday house, Jeffrey. It may remain obvious as well when we move to Cotson’s forest that glows with green hues, like the Garden of Eden where man fell from grace and placed the blame on women. Nevertheless, the formal consistency is admirable, and only goes on to manifest in more grotesque visual representations from here. The hand that James ripped on an iron railing during his fall is echoed through the other men Harper encounters, bearing resemblance to the forked tongue of Satan’s serpentine disguise in the Garden. And finally, the pain of childbirth exacted as a punishment upon women climactically plunges the film into subversive, absurdist body horror, provoking equal reactions of revulsion and incredulity.
The pagan spirituality existing alongside the Christian symbolism also becomes a source of mythological horror in Men, indicating thorough research on Garland’s part into the iconography of ancient European cultures, particularly in the appearance of one naked, demonic figure who stalks her and becomes more treelike with each appearance. Similarly, rock face carvings are threaded through Harper’s stream-of-consciousness montages, calling back to legendary figures of folklore which seem to flicker with life as light and shadows move across their finely sculpted ridges.
Given the large patches of Men which stretch on without dialogue, a great deal of storytelling is accomplished in its slow, meditative editing, blending the past, present, material, and symbolic worlds in a mesh of eerie rhythms that erode any clear grounding in reality. This, along with the unnerving vocalising and chanting in Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s otherworldly musical score, leads us to a reckoning with our primal, gendered instincts, moving deeper into a traumatised mind that sees these in their purest conceptual forms, divorced from anything remotely tangible.
A sharp, shallow focus thus becomes Garland’s primary visual device in depicting this immense loneliness and disconnection, aesthetically carrying Jessie Buckley through scenes that gorgeously soften backgrounds into obscurity and keep us firmly in her troubled state of mind. Minus a few dodgy pieces of CGI that transpose Rory Kinnear’s face onto the body of a young a boy, Garland wields impressive command over his visual compositions, particularly in those forest scenes that bounce reflections of the foliage off puddles and rippling ponds. The large, gaping arch that leads into a tunnel within this setting is a particularly effective set piece as well, framing silhouettes of Buckley and Kinnear as they enter the mass of darkness between them, and reverberating musical calls and responses in unnerving echoes.
Pairing such mysterious imagery with a sound design that offers warped drones and chants in place of dialogue consistently holds us in the grip of Garland’s disturbing tonal journey through Harper’s mind, crafting the sort of fever dream that invalidates questions of whether it is all real or not. The psychological space that Men inhabits keeps its terror just out of focus, refusing to offer justifications for its surreal mysteries and mythology, and it is ultimately all the more unsettling for it.
Men is currently playing in theatres.