Whenever I go to a movie theater lately, I have to feel desperate. In this total darkness surrounded by strangers lies the potential for poetry and challenge. Film, at the height of its power, is not only a material, aesthetic, and visual experience, but also a spiritual one, and writer-director Alex Garland lived up to my expectations earlier. As a screenwriter for the fiery, closed quarters sunshine and the zombie treatise 28 days laterGarland navigated the ecstatic wonders of genre fiction before turning to directing with the raunchy and imperfect Ex Machina. This 2014 sci-fi film was equally seductive and frustrating, and that wasn’t the case until 2018 destruction that Garland – together with cinematographer Rob Hardy and stars like Natalie Portman – could create a work of great complexity. Embedded in his scenes of lacerations and formal experiments is a story of depression and loss. Garland and his collaborators found a way to subtly communicate these ideas while not forgetting the queasy joys to be found in horror.
It’s a balance Garland seems to have forgotten while working on his latest feature film. men is a simple, pared-down film that focuses on Harper (Jessie Buckley), a widow reeling from the confused emotions surrounding the death of her husband James (Paapa Essiedu). Harper seeks healing by renting an idyllic 500-year-old estate in the English countryside managed by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). The discomfort quickly spreads. When Geoffrey sees that Harper has bitten into an apple from the tree in the front yard, he scolds her harshly, which is moments later framed as a joke: “No, you can’t do that. Forbidden Fruit” – a brief interaction that establishes the religious currents that will erupt from the film. Touring the facility’s bathroom, Geoffrey commands, “Ladies, watch what you flush.”
Harper’s refuge soon turns into repeated acts of violence, all committed by men and all played by Kinnear. She is being pursued by a naked man who is attempting to break into the property, a crime ignored by the incompetent police officer tasked with investigating. An adolescent boy challenges her to play hide and seek, then calls her a “silly bitch” when she refuses him. We also learn more about her final moments with James; in flashbacks, the image of a relationship characterized by abuse begins to intensify.
The scenes, which are set in the present, are lively, green to garish. Scenes set in the past take a different approach. In the apartment Harper shared with her husband, the lighting is downright apocalyptic, aching from orange, marigold, purple. In his small role, Essiedu is asked to perform a single note of desperate emotional manipulation. James warned Harper he would kill himself if she divorced him the way she wanted. As his violence became physical, Harper only grew more determined. Now she is haunted by his death and the broken body he left behind. A series of questions weighs on her psyche: Did he slip off the upstairs neighbor’s balcony after breaking into the house? Or did he want to kill himself? Essiedu’s role hardly transcends the power and impact of his violence, lending the film disturbing racist undercurrents. His body is a place of horror. His soul and inwardness are nowhere to be found.
We don’t learn much about Harper, either: She works in finance (maybe?), plays the piano, and has a charming friendship with a woman named Riley (a crooked Gayle Rankin), with whom she FaceTimes as incidents of her life’s journey into the stranger and stranger Territory. But Buckley nails the tricky confrontations that fuel Harper’s fears and struggle for survival. She tries to block out memories, only to have them roar back – breathing deeply, then raggedly, then crying after a flashback throws her into a cavalcade of conflicting emotions. It’s a razor sharp rendition of a psychological haunting.
Kinnear has the difficult task of embodying a multitude of misogynists, separated only by their costumes, terrible haircuts, and sometimes obscenely large teeth. His patronizing overtones gnaw at his early scenes as Geoffrey. At one point, he plays a youth whose face has been digitally mapped onto a child’s body, his voice slightly altered. It doesn’t quite work, and Kinnear is at his best as a grey-haired vicar who first offers comfort to Harper and then, when she opens up, blames her for James’ death. The film is at its best here when it paints a grotesque portrait of women’s contempt imbued with dangerous lust. As the film builds to a climax, Harper finds himself in the estate’s red-walled bathroom with the repulsive vicar, whose fear and sexual desire are evident in the block and frame. The potential for great sexual violence is in the air. A knife is held. blood spurts out. You can almost feel his breath on her face, her pulse quickening.
The tension and weirdness of Harper’s situation builds into a bombastic, meaty finale. Yet despite all the broken bones, the graphic deaths, and the copious amounts of blood, the driving idea behind it men is not brave enough to feel afraid. Instead, it’s remarkably lukewarm. Garland evacuates misogyny, reducing it to a primal problem rather than a man-made one. Prejudices are framed as a constant that keeps repeating itself in new guise; The film’s characters read more as flimsy ideas than people. in many ways men draws on a notion of modern “prestige” horror favored by production company A24: It should be more than grotesque – it should have a message, often bluntly communicated. The message behind it men means “Damn, misogyny is crazy, right?”
Nonetheless, the film is good-looking and reunites Garland with cinematographer Hardy and the people behind it, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury destruction Score. I admire too menWeaving together pagan archetypes, however, turns out to be yet more style in search of meaning that keeps slipping through the filmmakers’ fingers. There is a kind of stone basin in the church of the town. One side is carved with the face of a man having leaves for his face, a depiction of rebirth known as the Green Man. The other is carved with an image of Sheela na Gig, a nude woman with her legs apart, holding an exaggerated vulva open. Academics have debated the meaning and use of Sheela na gig: does it offer protection from evil, or is it a warning against sin? Doesn’t matter. As charged as these stone carvings may be in real life, they prove to be slick window displays for the film.
menThe ending of is marked by violence and blood on an extreme scale, involving the destruction of flesh and expectations. That should have been terrifying, even penetrating. Instead, as it dragged on, I felt unmoved and distant. A horror film doesn’t need a big message, political or otherwise. but men desperately looking for one in all its contortions. What we are left with is blood and cartilage and tendons without the skeleton to hold it.