Heath Lynch’s review published on Letterboxd:
Men. Men are the fucking worst. But, is Men the fucking worst? Well, it’s not the worst, but it’s certainly not the best either. Alex Garland’s new psychological horror dives deep into the realm metaphor and surrealism to examine, and condemn, toxic masculinity. Yet after watching this new vision I am feeling that self-serving ambitions are making this more pretentious and less thoughtful than it aims to be.
In Men we follow Harper (Jessie Buckley), a recent widow who decides to go out on a countryside retreat to find peace. But in her own words she is haunted by the memories of her past, in particular with her deceased husband James (Paapa Essiedu). Luckily, the cottage she rented from the awkward Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) is lovely, the countryside is gorgeous, and there’s all the privacy, tranquility, and serenity she could hope for. However, very quickly things start to unravel when a naked man suddenly appears in the woods and begins stalking Harper back to her cottage…
I feel we need to examine Garland‘s trajectory. I want to stay very clearly that I think he can direct the shit out of his projects. In coordination with his Director of Photography he delivers stunning shots with exquisite cinematography and bold compositions. He can levy sound oners and get great performances out of his cast. he has a great eye when it comes to symbolism, repetitive imagery, and unsettling sequences that uniquely put his stamp on his projects to make for a profound viewing experience. I just feel that he is diving too deeply into surrealism. Not that surrealism is inherently a bad thing, but it must be handled with delicacy and grace.
His debut feature film Ex Machina dabbled in some metaphor, but it was a pretty straightforward linear narrative bristling with dialogue that would bring up questions of morality and leave its audience contemplating what the world should be like. Annihilation went further into metaphor, but still presented a narrative that’s not impossible to follow. Men puts Ex Machina even further into the rear view as this is mostly steeped in metaphor while choosing to never give direct answers to virtually any major question. I was able to follow the messaging throughout this movie, but I know for a fact not everyone’s going to be able to do that. Many people in my theater were outright laughing at sequences that were not intended to be funny. It had people physically throwing their arms up in confusion at other scenes. One guy asked me in the bathroom after the movie ended what the hell was even going on, and what the ending of the movie meant. It’s not good when over half of your audience is not understanding what’s going on.
Overall, this is commentary on toxic masculinity, almost every aspect of it. It condemns gaslighting, emotional abuse and manipulation, not believing women, and more. It examines incel culture, the young teenage snot, the older gentleman who passively hides behind fake politeness, the judgement of the religious type, the animalistic nature of men, and more. It shows how these elements feed off one another, and grow stronger when compounded. It illustrates all of this via metaphor, and via traditional narrative structure. There’s even a very bold decision to show how toxic masculinity breeds toxic masculinity. It’s a never ending cycle, and the only way to stop it is to break the chain. To cut it down.
While it is important to talk about all of these things, as it’s a conversation that needs to happen regardless of if people want to hear it, I’m not entirely sure it’s presented in the right way, or by the right person. There’s something quite snooty about this whole picture. The fact that it’s made by a man actually makes the entire movie come off as mansplaning. I really would’ve loved to have had a woman behind the helm. I feel it would’ve yielded a much better story, and experience. I but I do give the movie props for the conversations it’s clearly trying to spurn, they are important.
Credit to Buckley for a solid performance throughout this film. Unfortunately the script doesn’t really give her the leniency to really showcase her talents like she could in The Lost Daughter, but she’s doing a great job here. The real noteworthy performance comes from Kinnear. Outside of being Bill Tanner in Skyfall and several other James Bond movies, and a brief roll in The Imitation Game, I really didn’t know him from much, but he’s outstanding here. He goes full James McAvoy from Split, showcasing of variety of different personalities and archetypes, all of them evil. He is beyond creepy, and gives off an aesthetic throughout the picture that will make your skin crawl. Terrific work.
We also need to talk about the visuals in this movie. On the one hand we have beautiful imagery. Gorgeous shots of moss covered tunnels, and creeping shadows throughout an isolated cottage. We have stone alters with imagery carved against them that almost appear ancient in nature. Garland certainly likes to utilize the imagery of a vagina, for multiple different purposes, throughout this movie as well. But on the frustrating flipside of all this are elements like putting Kinnear’s face on a young adolescent body with computer graphics that just look incredibly fake, if not outright laughable. There’s also this weird motif with a split forearm and double hand throughout the film that instills a lot of unintentional laughter as it just looks goofy at times, and not horrifying like it’s intended.
But nothing is more frustrating than this, the original sin….
The original sin of this movie is the apple. A smack you in the face obvious Adam and Eve parallel with Harper grabbing, and eating, an apple off a tree within the first few minutes of the entire film. As if to imply that the events of this movie are all her fault. Had she just remained happy, innocent, and pure in the garden, and not been tempted, she’d have been just fine. Just as the Old Testament states. Again, this is the parallel the movie is directly evoking. This bugs the shit out of me. I have no idea why this scene was included in this movie as it is a direct metaphorical contradiction to everything this movie is trying to achieve, to everything it stands for. By saying this is all Harper’s fault it’s simultaneously saying that the gaslighting isn’t real. There’s no mansplanning. No toxicity. And I can’t stand that. This scene should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Big mistake that undercuts the thematic work of the entire film. Grrr.
Additionally, there’s weird stuff in this movie that’s unexplained, or unbelievable. Particularly a scene where Harper says she’s going to leave a dangerous area, knowing it’s the right decision, but who then decides to stay anyway for… reasons. As well, Chekov’s hatchet, man. I swear. It is very clear that this damn hatchet is going to be important at some point in time, and when that time finally comes we cut a way to the damn title card. We never even get to see it in action, ever. Come on, Garland. We literally missed the coup de grâce for this whole adventure, are you serious?!
There’s a lot to appreciate with this movie. Garland clearly has a lot of technical mastery behind the camera and in the director’s chair. He has a lot of great intentions behind his work, and clearly knows how to develop atmosphere and tone. He embeds chilling images and a hair raising original score to keep you on the edge of your seat. I look forward to seeing more of his work, but he needs to reestablish a narrative structure moving forward. This film’s metaphors go too far into the realm of ridiculous, losing their resonance and impact. There is unintentional humor throughout this entire movie that will have you laughing when you should be terrified or contemplating deeper meeting meaning. Plus, I’m still not positive that Garland was the one to tell this story.
Men is an interesting psychological horror that will have some audiences enraptured, and some completely uncaring. Others will be very confused, while still more will be reveling in everything this movie has to say. The movie itself is a bit of a mixed bag, so it gets a mixed bag rating. This is your average horror flick when all is said and done. It really would’ve been interesting to see a woman behind this project because, once again, a man fucked everything up.
“What do you want from me?”