Men writer-director Alex Garland is fascinated with creation and rebirth. His first film Ex Machina focuses on creationism and oppression, his second film Annihilation deals with creation, re-creation and the impending apocalypse, while his newest film deals with guilt, trauma and rebirth. The latest is Garland’s most emotional and abstract work (yes, it’s even abstract by Alex Garland standard), and also his weakest. Not because of the themes or any technical aspects, but because it’s a frustratingly vague piece of work. This extreme level of ambiguity weakens an otherwise haunting thriller about dealing with post-traumatic stress.
The film opens with Harper (Jessie Buckley) traveling to the English countryside in the wake of a personal tragedy involving her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), whom she was in the process of divorcing before taking this road trip. She rents a countryside house that’s near open pastures with no neighbors. Upon arrival, she is greeted by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the awkward but harmless owner of the house. He helps her bring in the luggage and gives her a tour. All this alone time takes her back to the past, which still terrifies her.
The next day, Harper explores the grounds and stumbles upon a trail leading to a long, dark tunnel with light on the other side. She screams into the voided space, and the sound reverberates. After several minutes of this, a silhouetted man suddenly appears at the other end of the tunnel and runs toward her at speed too fast for an average human. She sees this and takes off, running for the house. On the walk back, she notices a naked man watching her. It’s not the man that ran toward her, so who is it?
At the house, Harper continues to dissociate, thinking of violent memories about her and James’ separation. She’s so inside her head that she doesn’t notice the naked man, who looks like Geoffrey, outside the window. The woman also encounters a cop (who eventually arrests the naked man for trespassing), a bartender, a priest, an adolescent boy, and several other people who look just like Geoffrey. For some odd reason, this doesn’t bother Harper. It’s difficult to tell if she notices all the guys look the same. The longer she stays by herself, the more bizarre and dangerous the situation becomes, until she is soon confronted with the question: What will it take for you to move on?
What makes Men an outlier among Garland’s directed films is the shooting style and the color palette. Scenes are bathed in red and green hues, specifically scenes between Harper and James or scenes between Harper and Geoffrey. The fantastical elements using pagan lore require things to be green, as nature in full bloom is essential to this plot. Flashing strobes and shots of pagan stone statues are foreboding, which doesn’t always make sense at the moment but serves a purpose–what that purpose is remains a mystery until the conclusion.
There is an impending sense of dread sprinkled with subtle hints of toxic masculinity, and Harper is trapped by it all. That is Garland’s thing — thrusting the main character into a hostile environment they cannot escape, only confront. If you can stick with where Garland’s direction is going in Men, it can be a semi-rewarding payoff. However, those who check out early can’t be blamed because it takes so long to get to the point. Thankfully, the two lead actors and their performances keep viewers distracted enough to keep the confusion at bay.
Kinnear does an excellent job tackling the varied personalities that Harper encounters. He embodies each role with such fervor, while Buckley matches his energy every step of the way. The actress has built a strong résumé with roles in nearly every genre. In Men, she is gritty and fierce, particularly in her scenes with Essiedu that evokes her character’s sense of fearlessness against the odds.
Men is a frightening exploration into the mind of a woman suffering and struggling to move on. But again, what does it all mean? Depending on how you look at it, Kinnear’s roles could represent the seven deadly sins, the stages of grief, or Harper’s subconscious emotions she refuses to address, or all or none of the above. The spectrum is so broad that it could be anything. I understand if the audience doesn’t need to be given all the facts, but the film doesn’t even point viewers in the right direction.
Watchers will be propelled to create their own conclusion about literally everything, which can be fun for some and a chore for others. No matter what fans think, Garland always delivers that sense of paranoia and uncertainty sprinkled with a bit of body horror in his movies, and Men will take you on that journey where you’re never sure if you’ll come out the other side unscathed.
Men will make its European debut in the Directors’ Fortnight lineup this month at the Cannes Film Festival.