Men Review – Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear Impress in This Folk Horror Tale

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Alex Garland’s Men is likely to be a deeply divisive film. Garland’s refusal to neatly spell out his themes and instead leave them to audience interpretation means that a lot of surface readings will insist that the film has a “misandrist” bias. The act of titling the film Men is a provocation but it is not, in effect, the full thesis of the film. By examining gender through genre – something Garland has mastered through the science fiction themes in Ex Machina and Annihilation, the use of folk and body horror in his latest effort rewards a patient viewer who understands that Garland is employing both excess and subtlety to ask questions that don’t come with neat answers.

In the opening scene of the film Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) watches her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu) fall to his death. In a moment it appears that Harper and James lock eyes and the fear and trauma of the moment becomes something that Harper will never be free from. Previously the couple were arguing with Harper insisting that she wants a divorce. James threatens suicide if Harper leaves him, insisting that she’ll never be able to divorce a ghost, especially one of her own making. Perhaps more than any other moment in the film which studies the destructive effect of power relations between men and women, this is the most psychologically toxic.

In an attempt to get away from London and find a quiet place to process her emotions post James’ death, Harper rents a country house named Cotson Manor from Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) a very English “country type” who is unfailingly polite and a little bumbling. Cotson Manor boasts a bountiful apple tree from which Harper plucks and eats the fruit. Garland is utilising a Christian metaphor Harper becomes Eve in the garden. Unlike Eve, Harper isn’t choosing to defy a deity via temptation and invoking punishment, yet like Eve, punishment is what Harper will receive as though through her gender, original sin has marked her.

Cotson is surrounded by a lush and fertile wood. The verdancy of Harper’s environs are captured masterfully by cinematographer Rob Hardy. On a walk through the woods Harper encounters a tunnel which she discovers creates a distinct echo. She sings notes that eventually reverberate back into the haunting soundtrack of the film. It is also in this tunnel that Harper notices her first ‘man’ who breaks her reverie and gives chase. As she rounds the wood she doubles back to the tunnel which now appears boarded up. Is Harper becoming paranoid? Was there even a man?

Harper’s paranoia is flirted with, but Garland soon lets Harper and the viewer know that something is very wrong in Cotson. From a homeless man emulating the mythical Green Man, to the policeman sent to apprehend him when he tries to break into Harper’s rental, all men in the village are the one man (Rory Kinnear). With the exception of a woman police officer who attends the arrest of the intruder there seems to be no sign of any other women in the village.

Harper finds herself put at risk in spaces that women have felt uncomfortable with for a long time. In a church she screams her agony only to be later confronted by the extremely creepy vicar who recognises that Harper is haunted but insists that it’s her own fault. In a pub she is confronted by antagonistic stares by the locals (Kinnear again) and her experience with the intruder, who she believes was stalking her, is downplayed by the male police officer who attended the scene. “You may have seen him, but did he see you?” The experience of women not being believed by law enforcement when in danger is neatly encapsulated by the exchange. Harper is disturbed by her encounters with the various men, including a school child who hides his face behind a Marilyn Monroe mask and whose ‘real’ face is an imperfect CGI extrapolation of Kinnear’s.

Beyond the increasingly obvious issues with Cotson and its never-ending parade of men, is the off-balance inclusion of pagan symbology. In Cotson’s Christian church the altar fountain is carved with symbols representing the Green Man and the Sheela-na-gig – both existing in Pagan belief of symbols of rebirth and fecundity. Where Garland goes with this metaphor is clear in the final act of the film which is genuinely by stages shocking and almost comical. Suffice to say that fans of body horror will get their money’s worth.

In what is essentially a two-hander both Buckley and Kinnear are impressive in their roles. Buckley has to embody a contemporary woman dealing with ensconced misogyny on a figurative and then very literal level. Kinnear’s ease in disappearing into the various guises of the men of Cotson is achieved with more than some canny make-up trickery. Kinnear is able to embody separate characters who eventually coalesce as one. Although the audience all know each man is Kinnear in the diegetic world of the film his omnipresence is never remarked upon.

Men is likely to replicate the controversy that was generated by Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. Because Garland opens the film to multiple readings and never quite puts the puzzle pieces together, it will be up to the individual audience member to take what they want from it. Certainly the film is his most opaque outing thus far which considering how mind-bending Annihilation was in places is saying a lot. Knee-jerk reactions will skew towards the film being a heavy-handed treatise on how “men are bad,” but Garland has more on his mind, especially once one figures in the penultimate scene. The very primality of the film is bound to cause confusion but also elucidation for those who understand the symbolism employed. The notion that Garland owes the audience all the answers is simplistic – film doesn’t owe anything.

Garland and his creative team have crafted a piece that explores a great deal (and in an exemplary visual and audio experience) but is open ended enough to appeal to, or repulse, the audience depending on their expectations. What is not in question is that Men won’t leave an impression albeit one that is difficult and perplexing. Men is unlikely to find any kind of broad audience, but for those who do see it there is a chance the film will never quite leave them.

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu

Writer: Alex Garland

Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich

Music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury

Cinematography: Kharmel Cochrane

Editor: Jake Roberts

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