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‘Men’ – a horror film that draws equally on folklore and toxic masculinity

‘Men’ – a horror film that draws equally on folklore and toxic masculinity
Production still from 'Men'. Image: courtesy of A24.

Shifting from sci-fi to folk horror, ‘Men’ is the latest thought-provoking effort from ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘Annihilation’ writer-director Alex Garland.

It doesn’t really matter what it is. We should pay attention to any collaboration between writer-turned-filmmaker Alex Garland and A24, the film company that, over the past half-decade or so, has developed a reputation for high-art horror that crawls under your skin (and stays there) as it sears your eyeballs with its striking imagery.

That descriptor certainly applies to Garland’s latest, Men, a horror film that draws equally on folklore and toxic masculinity to generate its sense of terror. 

In Men, Harper Marlowe (Oscar nominee Jessie Buckley) takes a break from her bustling London life following a tragedy. Her holiday destination is a manor house in the tranquil English countryside, but within 24 hours, the peace she sought is shattered by an apparent stalker. Then there’s the disturbing realisation that every man and boy in this village looks the same – and is played by Penny Dreadful’s Rory Kinnear

The choice to have essentially all the male characters played by one performer is perhaps a bit too on the nose. However, if you want to sum up Men in a single phrase it would be: “Yes, all men.” Which may explain why a lot of negative commentary around the film has come from male reviewers.

Production still from 'Men'.

Production still from ‘Men’. Image: courtesy of A24.

Men is Garland’s third effort as writer-director, following the slow-burn science fiction thrillers Ex Machina (also distributed by A24) and Annihilation. It’s also hands down his most “arty” and obtuse film, with viewers left to generate their own meaning. Brace for lingering shots of maggoty deer corpses, dandelion puffs and Green Man iconography lifted from a mysterious pagan past.

There’s a lot to unpack about Men, which is at its most chilling and powerful when it spotlights the threats shadowing Harper. Time and again, she is not allowed to be; to do what is necessary to soothe her soul. Men continually intrude, whether it’s a walk in the woods that ends with Harper fleeing from a silhouetted pursuer, or simply staying alone in a holiday home without a male protector, which attracts sinister attention. These are timeless examples of women’s experience, typically paired in the movie – as in real life – with dismissal when Harper turns to the authorities for help. Police officers jeer at her “overreaction” to a threat, and refuse to take pre-emptive action that will prevent her from being hurt.

Production still from 'Men'.

Production still from ‘Men’. Image: courtesy of A24.

Production still from 'Men'.

Production still from ‘Men’. Image: courtesy of A24.

Production still from ‘Men’. Image: courtesy of A24.

As recognisable as these incidents are, Garland’s film isn’t limited to holding up a mirror to everyday society. Men digs deeper to unearth the insidious forces that keep women afraid to the point of paralysis – specifically the way that they are often burdened with the unwanted responsibility of regulating men’s emotions. Numerous times, Harper does nothing, but is nevertheless slapped with slurs that reflect male characters’ insecurities and inability to take ownership of their feelings. Repeatedly she is blamed for their destructive actions.

Men has gifted Kinnear with a smorgasbord of characters, ranging from a bumbling landowner to a skeevy vicar, and even a surly adolescent. It’s fun to watch him shift between these different men, although the film’s emotional hook lies with Buckley, who is quite superb. No scream queen, her Harper is a perfect balance of frustration, anger and anguish, a 21st-century everywoman struggling to work out how much guilt is legitimately hers and how much is foisted on her by the males around her.

Production still from 'Men'.

Production still from ‘Men’. Image: courtesy of A24.

Production still from 'Men'.

Production still from ‘Men’. Image: courtesy of A24.

Production still from 'Men'.

Production still from ‘Men’. Image: courtesy of A24.

Men doesn’t stay quiet and introspective, though. Like many horror films – especially those where a character’s past trauma hasn’t successfully been dealt with – it tips into the overblown. Its final act is wild and hallucinatory, dialling up the body horror in a scene that won’t be easily forgotten (and won’t be spoiled here). Embedded in this sequence is evidently a message about perpetuating cycles, maybe, but by this point Garland has been so hands-off in terms of making a point that the film feels more like a flurry of disturbing images for shock’s sake. It’s also at this point that Garland is likely to lose most of the audience.

When considered alongside a final scene that feels disjointed from what precedes it, this messy climax ultimately makes Men hard to recommend. It’s beautifully shot and stirs up all kinds of emotions, from disgust to armrest-clawing anxiety, but the effect is scattershot. It’s perfectly fine to deny an audience answers, but at least make the ambiguity cerebrally satisfying in the end.

Production still from 'Men'.

Production still from ‘Men’. Image: courtesy of A24.

Being Garland’s most “arty” and obtuse film, Men will frustrate viewers who prefer a more conventional narrative. Superbly acted and chock-full of thematic content to unpack, it sadly falls into a typical horror-film trap in its final act, as it overloads audiences with nightmarish imagery at the expense of a satisfying and coherent conclusion. DM/ML

This story was first published on Pfangirl.com.

Men is available in South Africa in select cinemas.

'Men' film poster.

‘Men’ film poster. Image: courtesy of A24.

In case you missed it, also read Spiderhead: Blunt and bound up in convention

Spiderhead: Blunt and bound up in convention

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