Men starts with the end of a relationship, and it’s a breakup with a body count. Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), a 30-ish Londoner living in a stylish high-rise just across the Thames from the Shard, tells her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu), she wants a divorce, and she won’t take no for an answer. James threatens to kill himself in response before punching Harper in the jaw on his way out of the apartment — and, seemingly, her life.
This act of domestic abuse is abrupt, terrible, and all too plausible, a slice of real-life horror in a highly conceptual movie. What comes after it hews closer to dreamlike surrealism: Still shell-shocked in the aftermath of James’s assault, Harper catches sight of her husband falling through the air outside their living room window; their eyes meet for a split second as he flails against a blood-red sunset. Did he fall? Did he jump? Is any of this really happening?
Alex Garland loves his enigmas, and Harper’s inability to reconcile her trauma with any definitive answers about her own culpability gets under her skin and into her head. It’s like a fissure has opened in her psyche, and out of it crawls all kinds of creepy, symbolic creatures, humanoid and otherwise — vivid additions to the menagerie her creator has been tending over the course of his career. Few contemporary filmmakers are as attracted to confusion as Garland: His is a cinema of disorientation, of characters who don’t know what the hell is going on around them or what to do about it. His films’ power lies in the way they transfer those anxieties onto the audience; think of the protagonist of 28 Days Later awakening from a coma in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, a stunning cold open that forces the audience to get its bearings as well. Or the software engineers of Devs, methodically decrypting sensitive material as if their lives depended on it.
At a moment when the arthouse and the grindhouse have become definitively intertwined, Garland makes B-movies with A-plus effort; he’s a schlockmeister who wears his pretensions like a badge of honor. Men, which is impressive and flawed in equal measure, adds to this legacy while suggesting its maker is still chasing master mind-fuckers like Stanley Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg, who also split the difference between intellectualism and viscerality. Like those directors at their best, Garland wants to make you think and wince, ideally at the same time. More than anything, though, he’s after the shivery exhilaration native to the greatest thrillers — the sensation of scattered puzzle pieces locking into place, of reality peeling back its skin to reveal some deeper, hidden truth that’s been staring us in the face all along. He got most of the way there in Annihilation, which stranded Natalie Portman in a sci-fi wasteland filled with exotic, unfathomable monsters (including the scariest bear in movie history) only to build to an uncanny — and nightmarish — confrontation with the self. The ending somehow feels simultaneously inexplicable and inevitable.
There’s more than a little bit of Annihiliation‘s sinister lyricism in Men, which also takes place against a possibly enchanted pastoral backdrop, and which actually surpasses its predecessor on the level of grotesque special effects. In a year that’s set to bring us a new film by David Cronenberg, the bar for body horror has already been set dauntingly high. In fact, on a level of pure craftsmanship, Garland has arguably outdone himself with Men, leaning into the practical restrictions of filmmaking during COVID and making the most of his small cast and single location. The film is set in and around a beautiful country estate whose proprietor gratefully rents it out at a premium to city folk in need of a great escape. Garland films Harper’s arrival with just the right mix of ominousness and optimism: Cruising down empty dirt roads en route to what she hopes will be a restorative solo holiday, she’s propelled serenely onward like a moth to a flame — or a lamb to the slaughter.
The idea of a grieving character seeking relief in unfamiliar surroundings feels more than a little inspired by Roeg’s great occult shocker Don’t Look Now, and Garland also borrows liberally from Lars von Trier’s 2009 arthouse endurance test Antichrist—itself a fount of allusions to Roeg’s classic. In Antichrist, the vacationers are a husband and wife trying to cope with the death of their child and von Trier, one of the great sadists in contemporary world cinema, weaponizes their bucolic surroundings so that nature itself seems to be preying on their vulnerabilities and turning them against one another in a mythic battle of the sexes. In Men, Harper is alone by choice and the woods around the estate are unambiguously beautiful — a verdant symphony of greens — but in time, the same fraught gender dynamics emerge. Harper’s host Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) is a toothy bumpkin whose overbearing politeness barely masks something nosy and unwholesome. No sooner has he finally departed than Harper starts having sightings of a mute, naked man wandering the woods and loitering at the edges of the property; seen in close-up, his scarred countenance bears an uncanny resemblance to Geoffrey.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Kinnear plays multiple roles in Men: The trailer contains images of the actor in a half-dozen different guises. And while the makeup and CGI effects that occasionally transpose his face onto different characters within the same frame — including an entire pub’s worth of punters — are very effective, they’re meant to draw attention to Garland’s conceptual gambit rather than conceal it. Simply put, what Kinnear is playing here is Garland’s idea of capital-M “Men” as an abstract concept and a flesh-and-blood constituency; each of Kinnear’s different personas, which range from a solicitous priest to a nasty teenage boy to a diffident local police officer, reflects and refracts some aspect of masculinity.
That nearly all of these personalities are toxic suggests that Garland is trying to make a polemic — one that revises the Edenic allegory of Ex Machina, whose fembot heroine outfoxes her creator en route to achieving a form of feminist emancipation. The image of Harper blithely plucking an apple from Geoffrey’s tree surely evokes original sin, except Garland isn’t punishing her for her transgressions so much as showing how the male characters will take any opportunity to harass her and then justify their behavior under the banner of well-meaning allyship. A passage featuring Kinnear as a gray-haired vicar whose words of wisdom turn judgmental right around the time he places a supportive hand on Harper’s knee channels a genuine sense of discomfort. The threat he poses isn’t physical, but existential. He is an emotional vampire.
If Kinnear’s performance is a well-executed stunt, Buckley’s is a triumph. She’s an emotionally translucent actor, and as in her Oscar-nominated turn in The Lost Daughter—which, like Men, quotes from the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan — she’s able to convey complicated feelings in the space between words and facial expressions. There’s a wonderful sequence featuring Harper in a tunnel, bouncing her voice off the walls until the echoes resolve into orchestral harmony — a lovely way of suggesting that the character contains multitudes. For Garland’s conceptual coup to work, Harper has to register as a multifaceted individual holding the line against a sinister army of dead ringers, and in the absence of decisive screenwriting (exposition not being Garland’s strong suit), Buckley brings the character to life, projecting enough interiority for us to believe — if we want — that the whole movie is a byproduct of her own splintering consciousness.
For a while, the tension between Harper’s utter bewilderment at her situation and the strength of her survival instincts sparks the kind of charge that can keep a movie (and an audience) electrified. But as Men keeps wringing variations on Garland’s one major idea — that the male characters are cruel and condescending in ways that dredge up memories of James — it also grows redundant. That repetitiveness may be the point, as it syncs with the choice to have Kinnear play so many different roles, but hammering isn’t the same as deepening. Perhaps sensing implicitly that he’s backed himself into a corner, Garland lashes out in the final act with a hellacious, sustained fugue of body horror that, if nothing else, guarantees Men will have some cult status. And to give credit where it’s due, there’s something admirably daring in the way that the film ultimately subordinates plot to metaphor, sacrificing any hope of narrative coherence on the altar of provocation. For viewers in search of extremes, Garland delivers the goods: limbs are split; bodies well and mutate; taboos are skewered all over the place.
There’s a difference between being confrontational and achieving profundity, however, and the glib, sardonic humor present in Men‘s earlier scenes manifests at the end in the form of a cosmic shrug. Garland recently told The New York Times that he was “tired of feeling like a fraud,” and while that’s probably too harsh a self-assessment, there’s something strangely underwhelming about Men—A sense of a filmmaker pushing the proverbial envelope without getting anywhere. If the ending of Men is meant to be funny, that mission is accomplished well enough. But there’s a sharper satire lurking in the story’s DNA — that of an ambitious, well-meaning filmmaker who’s so determined to make a conversation piece that he ends up saying nothing much at all.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.