Novelist/screenwriter/director Alex Garland has earned a sizable and devoted following over the years. His previous two feature directorial efforts, Ex Machina and Annihilation, shimmer with retro-futurist cool and pop philosophical preoccupations enhanced by the presence of appealing performers, dazzling production design and the sharp cinematography of Rob Hardy. Men, Garland’s latest, will draw the filmmaker’s faithful, but the modest environs, esoteric posture and open text most likely won’t translate to massive financial success.
Men alludes to several hallmarks of folk horror, including themes of ominous spirituality and religion, an isolated protagonist, a rural/pastoral setting and the creeping sense of bleak and unrelenting nihilism pervading the film’s tone. The plight of Jessie Buckley’s Harper Marlowe, a widow whose desire to heal from the apparent suicide of her husband leads her to book an old house in a small village, becomes an exercise in potentially unreliable narration. So bizarre and eldritch are the increasingly impossible aggressions that one begins to wonder how much could be taking place in the fog of the heroine’s post-trauma imagination.
Garland’s central gimmick in Men is the casting of Rory Kinnear as all of the villagers with whom Harper interacts upon arrival in Coston. Caretaker Geoffrey, whose oversized teeth and bad haircut imply a kind of clownish and narrow country mouse, leads the pack of masculine menace. Kinnear also inhabits a vicar, a boy, a police officer, a pub proprietor and a nude stalker, among others. Garland certainly isn’t shy about leaving room for a reading in which the omnipresence of Kinnear fires a warning shot that indeed all men are of no use, no help, no support and certainly no comfort to Harper.
Kinnear’s multiplicity also shatters any hope of solace or solitude for the female protagonist. Garland’s awareness that women simply can’t enjoy the same privileges as men — namely, the general lack of fear when alone in public and even private spaces that men nearly always take for granted –– fuels one of the movie’s central themes. As Taylor Antrim of Vogue succinctly puts it, Garland embeds provocative ideas in “thoughts about the ubiquity of masculine power, about how male violence and thuggery are everywhere — and how ancient they are.” Anthony Lane of The New Yorker pushes just as hard, claiming that in the film’s world, “men are defined, and propelled, by the ill will that they bear to the opposite sex.”
All these strange reverberations and reflections among the characters portrayed by Kinnear are mirrored by a fantastic sequence in which Harper explores the woods near the rental property. At the mouth of a long tunnel, she composes a haunting, wordless song built out of the ripples of her own sustained vocal echo. For one fleeting moment, the character’s reason for leaving the city seems to take tentative shape and maybe even flight. It’s my favorite scene in Men. The idyll is over almost as quickly as it begins, pointing toward increasingly nightmarish events that climax with wild, gender-inverting blasphemies of birth and rebirth as mysterious and incongruous as the frequent presence of the pagan Green Man in Christian chapels, churches and cathedrals.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.