By now, Alex Garland has done enough good work to consistently draw me to his projects. But even if you’re not a Garland fan – and after this one, if you’re squeamish, you may not be – you should see Men (2022) for a different reason: Jessie Buckley. Over the past few years, Buckley has established herself as one of the best young actors working today with roles in Chernobyl, Fargo, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and The Lost Daughter, among others. Men is perhaps her most eclectic project yet, and she’s riveting in service to a truly disturbing vision.
Buckley plays Harper Marlowe, a young woman who rents an expensive cottage in the country for a two-week vacation to recover from the death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu). James’ death wasn’t a tragedy so much as an explosion of profound trauma; long the subject of his’ abuse, Harper was on the verge of divorcing him when he died, after threatening to kill himself if she left him – which he may or may not have done. Harper wants nothing more than to take long walks, decompress, and heal, in isolation from her fraught life in London. But the house she rents, from a friendly but peculiar man named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), is situated in a community that is far less friendly and far more peculiar, and soon she finds herself tormented and terrorized by its many strange inhabitants.
As a writer, Garland made his early name with the zombie horror film 28 Days Later. Elements of horror are noticeable in his subsequent work, but Men is his first straight-up horror film as a director, and it’s clear the genre is still in his creative blood. The scenario here reminded me of British folk horror in the vein of The Wicker Man or The Third Day, but Garland’s mission is more graphic and political, using the gruesome imagery of horror to illustrate the true evils of toxic masculinity. The theme is pervasive, manifesting in small ways (the microaggressions Harper endures), very real ways (the psychological abuse inflicted on her by James), and ultimately surreal ways. This last is where the film is at its most chillingly effective, as Harper’s paranoia builds from mere tricks of the light to violent, repulsive horror.
As a scathing, symbolically heavy-handed illustration of the evils of men, the film is certainly powerful. But while Garland’s intentions are clearly sympathetic to his victim, one wonders at the ultimate point of an exercise such as this. It’s all artfully done, of course, both in its picturesque moments and its nightmarish, wish-you-could-unsee-them visuals. The script is finely crafted, and elicits yet another brilliant performance from Buckley, who vibrates between fear, wonder, dread, and anger with convincing realism. Kinnear is also memorable in an unusual, multifaceted performance. But at the end of the day, is Men at all enlightening? Not really; it’s pretty clear at this point that, you know, men are kind of a fucking problem. Knowing is half the battle, I suppose, but let’s hope the other half won’t be as brutal as Harper’s ordeal, an intense and unnerving experience.