Men review: Alex Garland’s pseudo-feminist horror offers little beyond metaphors

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Men review: Alex Garland’s pseudo-feminist horror offers little beyond metaphors
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Dir: Alex Garland. Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin. 15, 100 minutes.

Alex Garland’s new horror film Men is a trippy exercise in self-flagellation, a bloody folktale meditating on male malevolence. It frames men as an ancient, insurmountable evil and misogyny as a bogeyman of unknowable origin. Certainly, that sounds damning (I can already hear hands revving up over computer keyboards, quaking with indignation), but who does Men’s broad-brush statement actually serve? For all its self-awareness, is the film just a vehicle with which to excuse men of any accountability? I suspect so.

Garland’s film, at times, feels a little like provocation for provocation’s sake. It suggests that all a male filmmaker needs to do to earn his feminist credentials is to show us men doing bad things. Think Bugs Bunny chomping on his carrot and, with a wink to the audience, declaring, “ain’t I a stinker?”

Harper (Jessie Buckley) rocks up to the village of Cotson looking for a little peace and quiet, taking up residence in a handsome Tudor manor owned by a local, tweed-clad eccentric named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). He has big, white chompers and a snivelling laugh. When Harper grabs an apple from the garden, he lectures her about stealing the “forbidden fruit”. It’s a joke, of course. Or is it?

For a brief moment, Garland allows Harper a little joy amongst the heathers, flowers, and dew-kissed leaves. Then she stumbles across an abandoned railway tunnel in the woods – a dark, deep gash urging her inside. There’s someone in there. A man. He runs. She runs. It’s only the first in a long line of terrors for Harper. Every man and boy she meets finds a new way to torture and demean her – and they all have Kinnear’s face, distinctly featured but somehow hard to describe. She came to Cotson, as her friend Riley (​​Gayle Rankin) angrily insists over FaceTime, because it was “the one place you chose to heal”.

Harper’s husband James (Paapa Essiedu) has only just died. She’s yet to change her last name or drop the “Mrs”. Garland’s flashbacks show us the truth of what happened, each scene bathed in an apocalyptic orange. Harper was seeking a divorce. He reacted abusively, striking her and threatening to end his life so that she’ll “have to live with [her] conscience.” At some point during the argument, James fell from an upstairs window. Harper will never know whether it was intentional or not. None of that – not the pain, fear or guilt implanted in her mind through pure manipulation – ever really leaves a person. The men of Cotson certainly make sure of that. The local vicar tells her, in faux-saintly tones, “you must wonder why you drove him to it”, as he gently rests his hand on her thigh.

The way Men presents women’s basic experiences as radical truth reminded me a little of Edgar Wright’s approach to sexual violence in his 2021 horror movie Last Night in Soho (though it should be noted that Wright shared a screenplay credit with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, while Garland wrote his film alone). Even with their best of intentions, these two male filmmakers cart out elaborate visual metaphors to capture something already so intimately familiar. It’s hard not to react with much more than a shrug.

Jessie Buckley in ‘Men' (A24)
Jessie Buckley in ‘Men' (A24)

Garland leans heavily on both Christian and pagan symbols – the apple of the Garden of Eden, for one, alongside carvings of the Green Man and Sheela na gig, a naked woman holding open her vulva. The latter’s meaning is hotly contested. Was she meant to spurn evil, or invite it in as a warning against lust? Is that debate replicated in the ways Harper is demonised by men who, in the very same breath, ask only that she loves them? Perhaps. But Garland’s film, which was shot during the pandemic and so is deliberately small-scaled, offers up frustratingly little beyond metaphors alone.

It’s also a rather hopeless perspective. And that’s surprising to see from someone like Garland. His work’s never exactly been cheery – before stepping behind the camera, he was known mostly as the guy who wrote 28 Days Later – but his two previous directorial efforts, Ex Machina and Annihilation, showed a far more nuanced appreciation for the resilience of women than we see here. The former ended with Alicia Vikander’s android ready to integrate herself into human society. The latter saw Natalie Portman’s scientist make peace with life as host to an alien anomaly. But, in Men, feminism is reduced to a sympathetic pat on the back for Harper, and a gesture of “isn’t it a shame?” That’s not exactly scary – just wearily familiar.

‘Men’ is in cinemas now

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