Men mistrusts its viewers almost as much as its subject

 June 1, 2022

A common element among screenwriter Alex Garland’s previous two films, Ex Machina and Annihilation,is that by the time the credits begin to roll, you are left confused — and intrigued. You slowly rewind the sequence of events you just watched, trying to piece together a theme.

Garland’s latest picture, Men,is an unfortunate downturn. Men lacks the depth and nuance that made his prior films thought-provoking. In fact, it divulges the entire motif in the title: Men. More specifically, men’s toxic foibles, as manifested in the plight of Harper (Jessie Buckley), a bereaved widow who seeks solitude in the English countryside after the death of her abusive husband (Paapa Essiedu). (Mild spoilers ahead.)

Upon arriving at her quaint, rural getaway, Harper is immediately greeted by her host. Initially a gallant “good guy” insisting on carrying in Harper’s baggage, this host lets his facade wane as he starts uncomfortably prying into Harper’s private life, asking about her marriage and the whereabouts of her husband.

The remainder of the film largely replays this exchange in different scenarios. The verdant countryside town is populated by about a half dozen men, all of whom, along with the host, are played by the same actor, Rory Kinnear.

Kinnear’s and Buckley’s performances carry the film. A deft chameleon, Kinnear steps in and out of his many roles. Along with the estate host, he plays a deranged, nude stalker, a policeman, and a priest, just to name a few. But all his roles reduce to a common denominator: They exhibit some form of male chauvinism — the movie was called Men,remember?

Visually, the film feels right at home in Garland’s cinematic canon. Men blends elements of horror and psychological suspense. Moreover, the film cleverly fiddles with the supernatural, refusing to reveal whether its monsters exist or are merely figments of Harper’s vivid nightmares.

In one scene, Harper maims her stalker in a way that mimics the wounds her late husband succumbed to. Did she really stab her frenzied assailant, or was she subconsciously still grappling with her abusive husband’s sudden demise? These are abstract questions Garland leaves open to interpretation.

But where Garland leaves no ambiguity is the question of what the film is actually about. Neat parlor tricks aside, Men reduces to a singular idea: Masculinity is a toxic trait that victimizes women. Everymale character portrayed in the film is another pillar bolstering this idea.

What remains unclear is Garland’s intended audience for this filmIt is directed and shot in such a pretentious aesthetic as to be inaccessible to the average moviegoer. But its underlying message is something out of a freshman year liberal arts college paper.

Men is simultaneously Garland’s least accessible work and his most vapid, a dreadfully futile combination. If you jettison storytelling norms for a string of abstract vignettes, you need to offer the viewer some intellectual payoff.

Once the credits start to roll, Men leaves you scratching your head, revolted and underwhelmed, wondering what you just sat through. It turns out to be a one-dimensional rant, dishonestly packaged as some deep, art house horror film.

Originally published at The Washington Examiner