Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin
Run Time: 100 mins
Men is the third film from Alex Garland, whose first two sci-fi films Ex_Machina and Annihilation were both thoughtful, thrilling and visually interesting pieces. Garland sidesteps from sci-fi into British folk horror and this film follows a young widow, Harper (Jessie Buckley) who ventures to the Cotswolds for a well-earned break from London city life and to recover from the death of her husband.
She meets Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the eccentric owner of the holiday let and Harper later dismisses him to her friend on a FaceTime calling him a “certain type”. Harper is clearly still raw from the event that made her a widow and shortly after she reaches her holiday retreat, she starts to become tormented by strange men in the village, all of whom are portrayed by Rory Kinnear. Harper starts to become overwhelmed by the titular men, who all share predatory or patronising traits.
Men’s first two acts are thrilling and Garland skilfully drip-feeds his audience details of her past trauma a piece at a time. He establishes a deeply unsettling tone and deftly ramps up the tension through Harper’s mental paranoia. The film is as much a metaphorical piece as much as it is a horror, using its frightening elements as allegories for misogyny, grieving and rebirth.
Unfortunately, the film nosedives in its third act. On the plus side, there’s some suitably slimy body horror but Garland is self-indulgent and throws away any subtlety he builds in its first two acts. It just becomes rather silly and certainly not as clever as it thinks it is.
The film is bolstered by an eery choral soundtrack from Garland regulars, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The duo combine diegetic music with non-diegetic, one scene imaginatively sees Harper stop in a tunnel and sing chords, to experience the effects of the echo.
Rob Hardy vividly captures the beauty yet foreboding nature of the Cotswolds. He captures many arresting images, from the full blown body horror to the biblical apple tree in the holiday let’s front garden.
Jessie Buckley’s great as the prickly Harper. I’ve been quite sniffy on her performances in the past, especially with The Lost Daughter where her accent wanders all over the place (I still cannot grasp how she earned an Oscar nomination), but this role plays to her strengths. This is career best work from Rory Kinnear – all of his characters are strikingly individual and have their own personalities, which is an impressive feat.
One aspect that threw me out somewhat in the film’s opening was a geographical goof – Harper is seen driving on the M40 motorway as there is a sign for Princes Risborough and Watlington which are small towns on the Oxfordshire / Buckinghamshire border but Kinnear’s landlord makes reference to how “the M4 can be a bore”. Harper would have had no reason to travel on the M4 to the Cotswolds if she is driving on the M40 past these towns.
It’s a shame that Men falls apart in its third act, but for its first two, I was generally really on board with the film. Garland initially unveils his hand methodically and he coaxes two excellent performances from Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. Men may be Garland’s weakest film but it’s still a strong piece from the director and I’d rather a filmmaker take a risk and it not fully succeed than play it safe.