Are men OK? The fact that we live at a time when a horror movie can simply be called “Men” — a title as cheeky but unsarcastic as that of Jordan Peele’s forthcoming “Nope” — would suggest not. And needless to say, it doesn’t exactly require a spoiler warning to reveal that the un-fairer sex causes all sorts of fucked up grief in Alex Garland’s arresting but half-formed nightmare of a new film.
Be that as it may, anyone familiar with Garland’s protean and increasingly surreal genre exercises (e.g. “Ex Machina,” “Annihilation,” and the FX series “Devs”) should know to expect that his latest film has more on its mind than skewering toxic masculinity. For better or worse — and often at the same time — Garland doesn’t tell the kind of easily digestible sci-fi stories that can be reduced to a hashtag, and he sure as hell isn’t starting to now; not with a movie that often feels equally inspired by both “The Holiday” and “Antichrist.”
Despite its Twitter bait of a title, despite its tendency to feel more like a conversation-starter than a fully realized vision, and even despite its winking #NotAllMen of a conceit — which finds actor Rory Kinnear offering an amusingly hellish twist on the old Alec Guinness routine from “Kind Hearts and Coronets” by playing all but one of the male roles — “Men” is less of a supernatural pivot towards social commentary than it is an uncharacteristically grounded step closer towards the heart of Garland’s usual obsession: Self-identity in the face of the singularity.
He’s bred clones for spare parts. He’s programmed androids to seduce the Turing test. He’s unraveled scientists inside an alien soap bubble that reveals the separation between all living things as a mere trick of the light, and confronted programmers with an algorithm that frays away the very fabric of free will. Whatever their premise, each of Garland’s recent projects has stemmed from a shared anxiety over self-definition in an indefinite world, and each of them has searched for answers in the amorphous space between where “you” end and “I” begin.
With “Men,” that search finds Garland circling around the most primal essence of the same questions have always driven him wild, and framing them in terms that reflect our clear-and-present struggle to agree upon a shared reality. To what degree is the world absolute, and the people within it clearly delineated from each other? To what degree, the movie’s newly widowed heroine might wonder, is every man she meets an echo of the one who shouted in her face on the same night that he died?
Which is to say that men, if anything, are so obviously not OK that Garland felt the time had come for a mainstream-adjacent horror movie that reaches beyond the usual talking points in order to ask what “men” really are. Not as a physiological construct, but rather as some kind of invasive weed that’s been aggressively reproducing itself throughout civilization since the Garden of Eden.
While Garland isn’t big on specifics (if the biblical imagery is hard to miss, the story’s pagan lore is illegible to anyone not already steeped in it), his film also doesn’t waste any time dispelling any prefab assumptions about what it’s trying to say about the source or purpose of men’s supposed power over women. The horrors that follow its heroine on her emergency getaway to the English countryside might appear to be self-evident, but as Lesley Duncan croons over the opening credits: “Do you know what I mean? Have your eyes really seen?”
By the time “Men” is over, many viewers will find themselves wondering if their eyes can unsee, as Garland’s ambiguous whatsit — most of which unfolds like an evocatively strange dream that a run-of-the-mill slasher once had — makes a giddy swerve towards Giger-esque body horror in its final 20 minutes. For Harper, played by a wounded but caustic Jessie Buckley, it marks a fitting end to a weekend full of perversions.
Harper’s stay in the cozy, ancient, seemingly woman-less Gloucestershire village where she retreats in the wake of her husband’s death is unnerving from the moment she arrives at her palatial Airbnb. At first, however, it might be even more unnerving for us than it is for her.
Unlike everyone in the audience gasping along to the film’s exquisite first home invasion setpiece — riddled with some of the best and most casual “look behind you!” shots in recent memory — Harper doesn’t seem to notice that the naked man who follows her out of the woods (Kinnear) and plants himself on the lawn of her Airbnb has the same face as the smiling idiot who rented it to her (Kinnear). So does the handsy vicar she meets in the village church (Kinnear), the teenage delinquent who harasses her outside of it (Kinnear, with the help of some effectively uncanny CGI), and several others who enter the mix after that (all Kinnears, none of them Greg).
These are “real” people who confront Harper with the unambiguously real dangers that present themselves to women every day, and yet Garland’s trickery also flattens them into something of a concept. Are men all the same, or do they just look that way squeezed through the pinhole of one person’s experience? Are they trying to make Harper into a vessel for their pain, or are they hoping that she might fill their own emptiness? Will this movie inspire anything more than an endless litany of rhetorical questions and a Saturn Award nomination for Best Special Effects?
Harper doesn’t give a damn — she’s just determined not to let a few bad apples spoil a good trip. Ditto her deceased ex, James (Paapa Essiedu), who cruelly threatened to kill himself if she divorced him. Did he make good on that promise when he plummeted to his death from the Shard-adjacent apartment building where the couple lived together, or did he slip by accident while trying to sneak back inside after his wife locked him out? Here we go again.
The truth is that Harper will never know, and Garland will never tell us. Shot in a blast of hyper-expressive slow-motion so indebted to Lars von Trier that it almost feels like a new story built atop “The House that Jack Built,” this film’s prologue only makes clear that James’ demise forced Harper back upon herself: Husband and wife lock eyes from either side of the window as James falls to the ground below, Harper’s view of his final moments shimmering against her own reflection. Later, as Harper walks along the abandoned trail near the house she’s renting, her voice pinballs around a dark tunnel and doubles itself until it melds into the melody of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s eerie score. Wherever Harper goes, the world is refracted through her experience of it — a natural phenomenon made harrowingly strange by how it manifests here, even before it
Not that she goes very far. Conceived during COVID and scaled to match, “Men” is mostly confined to Harper’s rental house and a small handful of other locations strewn about the village (FaceTime calls with the heroine’s ride-or-die BFF Riley, played by Gayle Rankin, strain to expand the scope). That helps to explain why Garland’s script is so light on incident, as its violent backstory and beguiling abstractions chip away at the film’s genre foundation until whatever plot “Men” has finally collapses under the weight of its existential mishegoss.
It’s a controlled demolition, even if it feels like the film abruptly detonates just when it finds the gumption to trade question marks for exclamation points. Garland has fun inverting the arc of a traditional horror movie, with his monster only growing more pathetic — and his final girl less threatened by the whole charade — as “Men” gets closer to naming what it actually wants from Harper. The gambit half-works because Buckley is so brilliant at modulating between terror and boredom, and because Kinnear taps into a Cronenbergian ability to mine something pitiable from profoundly gross moments of what the fuck-ery, but neither of Garland’s lead actors can prevent his most elemental movie from also being his most nebulous.
The dumber version of this film would’ve found Harper being hunted by men who all had her husband’s face, just as the dumber version of this film would’ve done more to paint Harper as the clear victim of their marriage. But Garland is always keen to remind us that the world is a messy place in which everyone blurs together in the end, and so his film naturally goes the other way — tacking so hard towards representational dream logic that much of its messiness feels created rather than found.
For all of its vagueness about the pervasiveness of misogyny, “Men” settles for an ending that almost seems glib. And for all of its singularly bizarre thrills, all of which reaffirm Garland as a vital interpreter for a world that’s coming apart at the seems, “Men” is the first of his films that makes life feel simpler than it really is.
A24 will release “Men” in theaters on Friday, May 20.
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