If it isn’t evident from the basic-to-the-point-of-elemental title, Men is thematically ambitious. The latest heady thriller from writer/director Alex Garland posits an alternate version of the Biblical creation myth. While a lot of the film is open to interpretation, this aspect is fairly blatant. Early on the protagonist Harper (Jessie Buckley) picks a crisp apple off the tree in the front yard of the sumptuous manor she’s rented for a few weeks in the English countryside. In case you somehow missed the reference, the house’s owner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) then makes a “forbidden fruit” joke — aggressively underlining, circling, and highlighting the capital-T Theme. Harper has, foolishly, tried to get away from it all while in the midst of mourning. In a horror movie, that’s just asking for trouble.
Imagery of apples recurs, along with a different plant which the film makes central to its own allegory: the dandelion. After the opening scene depicts the suicide of Harper’s husband James (Paapa Essiedu), we see a field of the flowers being stripped of their seeds by the wind. The seeds float through significant moments of the film like fairy sprites, apparently harbingers of the evil that Men do. Again, that’s a capital-letter idea; this one’s even the title. This aspect is further driven home by the fact that, in addition to Geoffrey, Kinnear plays all the other men whom Harper meets in the nearby village. (I knew he was an everyman type, but this is ridiculous.)
Each of these encounters brings with it a different facet of misogyny, and having Buckley act against literally the same man each time emphasizes the patriarchal venom that runs through each of them. The local vicar (Kinnear in a white wig and cassock) condescendingly wonders what Harper did to drive James to suicide. A “troubled” boy (Kinnear with his face unconvincingly digitally transposed onto a young actor’s body) calls her a bitch when she won’t play with him. A police officer (Kinnear in uniform and affecting a “well wot’s this ‘ere then” mutter) dismisses her concerns about the filthy nude man (also Kinnear, of course) who’s been stalking her.
That last one is the unifying being of the various Rories Kinnear, a variation on the folkloric figure of the Green Man. He’s an icon so ancient that we don’t know for sure what he meant to the pagans, but he’s generally believed to be a herald of fertility. Paired with the dandelion motif, that concept takes on a decidedly sinister pallor here. (The film’s ambiguous, gory finale is kicked off when the Green Man blows a cloud of spores in Harper’s face.) The church has a stone baptismal font with the Green Man’s face on one side and a sheela na gig on the other, another overt symbolic masculine/feminine pairing. Despite the sheela na gig’s gynecologically aggressive iconography, the film again subverts traditional religious ideas about a woman’s body in relation to original sin; here birth is given to Kinnear’s character(s), in a sequence that offers another extremely literal take on how misogyny perpetuates itself.
That sequence, like much of Men, is conceptually intriguing, executed with impressive technical skill, but blunt in intellectual effect and severely lacking in emotional impact. Fundamentally all this symbolism and interpretative potential revolves around an aggravatingly basic rumination on grief and trauma that doesn’t do enough to distinguish the story from its ilk of recent handsomely mounted metaphor-heavy horror films. Like too many of these films, it has a single idea and an awful lot of running time over which to stretch it. The result is an oddly structured narrative, so meandering that it thwarts any sense of mounting dread. Flashbacks to Harper’s final argument with James are parceled out gradually despite only one of them actually granting any new context to the plot. The conceit of Kinnear playing the whole village doesn’t even come in until nearly halfway through, and the range of characters he plays is oddly small (this “town-full” of men amounts to around seven seen individuals), giving the movie little time to explore it before things have to be wrapped up.
Despite all it feints to have on its mind, and building an allegory that does require thought and even research to parse (I’ll fully admit I haven’t fully worked out everything myself), Men lessens the more one thinks about it. In rendering misogyny as an elemental force through a series of mundane interactions, it paradoxically trivializes the inciting incident driving the story: James threatening to kill himself when Harper asks for a divorce, then striking her when she refuses, just before his death. (Additionally, putting such an elemental act of violence in the context of a Black man abusing a white women feels politically thoughtless, to say the least.) The gestures toward folk horror with the incorporation of pagan imagery feel tacked on as well. No piece quite fits together, and the overall endeavor is airless. By the time the film introduces some undeniably gnarly body horror, it’s difficult to care.
Buckley makes good sport of being saddled with the same directives that these kinds of horror films tend to place on their female protagonists: Feel sad and react a lot to the weirdness. She inflects Harper’s growing unease with different nuances of discomfort giving way to terror; oddly, she does more than Kinnear to sell the effect that the men she’s talking to are different people and not the same actor. Kinnear, for his part, doesn’t get enough of a chance to imbue most of these men with distinct personae — only Geoffrey and maybe the vicar are developed to any extent. And yet, with a single line of dialogue alluding to his poor upbringing, Geoffrey becomes a better-rendered character than Harper; she’s just another symbol, rather than a person. Given the film’s feminist posturing, that’s supremely ironic.
Men is now playing in select theaters.
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