Garland doesn’t just want to shock or scare you; he wants you to think. Don’t expect to leave the theater with a well-crafted ending.
ST. LOUIS – It’s never a good sign when a movie’s main character shows up at a mysterious but beautiful country house, and immediately plucks an apple from a tree and takes a big bite. Things always go downhill from there. Just ask Harper, a widow quick to dismiss her still-unchanged last name when greeting someone – a defense mechanism the friendly but odd landlady picks up early on in Alex Garland’s “Men,” a movie uplifting yet empowering about grief, guilt and the wicked game that male toxicity can play on the female mind.
Played like a grenade stuck in a vice by Jessie Buckley, Harper escapes the tragedy of London – her husband leapt to his horrifying death and they met eyes on his path – finding hopeful peace and quiet in the English country. But what starts off as beautiful quickly becomes strange, and this gives way to a realization that scares our heroine. Garland’s films, “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” among them, like to keep audiences off balance and uneasy while keeping what’s really going on out of their minds for as long as they can.
We don’t know exactly what caused the dike to break between Harper and her husband, James (well played by Paapa Essiedu), but we do know of an unfair ultimatum he issued. Garland’s villainous script delivers detail in doses, while Harper finds herself increasingly haunted on her vacation. A nice walk leads to a spooky but echo-friendly tunnel, which shapes a great sequence in “Men.” As Harper creates a song with a combination of echoes, she begins to realize that she may not be alone in the tunnel. But instead of getting bloody and familiar with her fear so early in the game, Garland only increases the tension and suspense of the moment. If you’re not gripping the chair and seat tightly, the IPA you just consumed must have been potent.
Powerful is the arena in which the writer/director loves to play with his horror-tinged tales. Like Robert Eggers, he makes films with similar feelings but never comparable. The kind of slow-burning powder keg that an audience member tries to guess when it’s going to explode and keeps getting it wrong. Garland doesn’t follow standard horror genre conventions, never picking the shortcut for a scare. He prefers to get into our heads and play with our own sensibilities in a good cinematic way. “Men” is the kind of film that will light the fire in the brain of any ambitious and ambitious screenwriter. These neglected but fascinating masterminds work their creative power as the film unfolds.
Buckley bases it all as the tormented Harper. From “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” to “The Lost Girl” to this, she chooses messy and difficult types of roles to play that take her talent in different directions. She neither overestimates nor underestimates the emotions of this widow, a person who can’t get out of her head that she may have made James jump. She’s central to the story, but the audience isn’t told to love and support her from the start. The mystery here is as much a supporting character as the addictive setting.
As awesome as Buckley is, the best performance in “Men” belongs to one man after all: Rory Kinnear. It’s Geoffrey, the gracious but quick-witted owner who, at first, rubs Harper badly with his blunt comments. Kinnear also plays several other characters in the film, ranging from a rude cop to young punks in a bar. The naked guy who seems to merge with nature staring directly at Harper? Kinner too. It’s the priest who takes Harper’s tragedy too far, asking her questions she’s asked herself a hundred times before. Kinnear is everywhere and all the time in Garland’s “Men”, dialing in the creepy factor from top to bottom in each of his personalities/entities.
Wait for the scene, seen in the film’s premiere, where a young actor has Kinnear’s face superimposed on his body. Kinnear’s task in film is always great, and a (literal) out-of-body experience scene at the film’s climax is a showcase for his impressive talent. You won’t see him as M’s nice assistant in the Daniel Craig Bond movies after leaving “Men.” It’s his coming out party, a performance on par with James McAvoy’s in “Split,” but even more twisted.
Garland’s film isn’t exactly split; simply a deep manifestation of grief, and how guilt always follows loss. “Could I have done something different? It’s the mantra that compels Harper, something played exquisitely by Buckley. She never overplays, a trait that really helps “Men” come together so succinctly, even in its infuriatingly graphic finale.
This film is not for the faint hearted. It’s gruesome and graphic, refusing to run away from Harper’s most gruesome memories, even the moment she walks out and finds James’ body. The camera often lingers here, ruminating on how the voices in our heads never quite go silent. They raise questions and thoughts that are too addictive to put aside. Garland’s movies don’t follow a straight line, as he isn’t interested in straight answers or fun.
While the trailer and the idea for the film point to a painting of men as the toxic enemy, it doesn’t approach it in a one-sided way. Life is not so easy to understand, after all. Garland doesn’t just want to shock or scare you; he wants you to think. Don’t expect to leave the theater with a well-crafted ending. Classifying it as a cliffhanger wouldn’t be accurate, but “Men’s” ending will have you thinking and theorizing.
Although I admired him, there is a coldness and black sheep mentality that will make him hard to like. “Men” is the type of movie that can live in your head for days without getting a Christmas card later that year. But the lack of shock value or horror shortcuts taken, and one final bit of heartbreaking dialogue, is what makes it something else. No pretentious “gotcha” moment. Thanks Alex.
Just all the uncomfortable truths about marriage, the difficult but very real connection between nature and grief, and hard-to-explain things portrayed on screen for 100 minutes.
Here’s the last thing. Alex Garland’s “Men” is going big instead of going home. How that makes you feel is up to individual interpretation. Good luck.