Few artists working today have a better understanding of how to trawl the subconscious than Alex Garland. The writer/director of "Annihilation" and "Ex Machina" — two of the best genre films of the last 10 years — knows how to tell a story, but more importantly, he understands the value of digging up and pointing to the things that cannot be named. His films are primal and elemental. You may not be able to parse his stories piece by piece with the cerebrum, but if you hand control over to your gut, everything falls into place.
The trailer for "Men," his latest (and the latest piece of "elevated horror" to emerge from arthouse darling A24), promises more of the same. A woman (Jessie Buckley) shouts into a tunnel, pulls an apple from a tree, and sees a boy in a mask — stuff that shouldn’t make the skin crawl, but crawl it does. Those creeping images trigger an instinctive reaction, a fierce tug on your fight-or-flight response.
It’s a great trailer. And all that footage is great in the movie, too. But "Men" has precious little to add to the experience of watching its promotional materials. Garland’s films are usually tight in focus but of fathomless depths, like stepping into a puddle that’s somehow hundreds of feet deep. Yet despite the efforts of its stars, watching "Men" is more like strolling up to the edge of the ocean only to discover that it’s just a big piece of painted scenery.
About "Men": Yes, all of them
"Men." Photo: A24.
Buckley’s Harper needs a place to breathe. Still reeling from the death of her husband James (a reality that’s both less weepy and more upsetting than you might imagine), she arrives at a stately home she’s rented in the English countryside and is captivated by its beauty and tranquility. Passing an apple tree, she takes a bite, relishing the experience. But don’t worry if you somehow miss the symbolism — the property’s obsequious yet condescending owner (one of many roles played by Rory Kinnear) will soon scold her for eating "forbidden fruit."
That’s the high point of Harper’s country sojourn, and while I’d love to tell you that things get more subtle as they grow more terrifying, that would be a lie. "Men" becomes somehow more muddled and more heavy-handed all at once, losing its anchor as it lays the themes on thick.
For Harper, the past (witnessed in flashbacks made immediate and terrifying thanks to the excellent performances of Buckley and "I May Destroy You" standout Paapa Essiedu) and the present are inextricable. The more she seeks peace, the more elusive it becomes. With each of Harper’s recollections of the nightmarish circumstances of her husband’s death, the present dangers she faces seem to grow and multiply.
And the dangers are, in this case, men. Yes, all men, all of whom (with the exception of Essiedu’s James) are played by the game Kinnear. They are, quite literally, all the same. Imagine a woman in a terrible situation. Imagine the most obviously damaging response a man could have to that situation. Make sure to dismiss all the complexities of gender identity. Congratulations, you’re well on your way to writing the screenplay for "Men."
At each turn, Garland approaches the failings of a patriarchal society and the dangers of toxic masculinity with all the subtlety of a dude expecting thank yous for wearing a T-shirt that says "FEMINIST" — a reality made all the more frustrating by the fact that both "Annihilation" and "Ex Machina" are great movies that are also undeniably feminist and infinitely more thoughtful and complex than this latest effort.
See "Men" for: Jessie Buckley, noted non-man
Jessie Buckley. Photo: Kevin Baker.
That’s not to say that "Men" is totally devoid of subtlety. Essiedu brings both nuance and intensity to his scenes, painting a vivid picture of a relationship marred by emotional abuse and manipulation. (At one point, James tells Harper to stop pleading because he is the one pleading, as though he’s called dibs on all the misery and she’s trying to rob him of what’s rightfully his.) Supporting player Gayle Rankin spends nearly all of the film’s runtime stuck on Facetime but nevertheless brings some welcome humor and humanity to the proceedings as Riley, Harper’s best friend. And while the material Kinnear is saddled with has all the delicacy of a rubber mallet, his performance is still an impressive display of prowess; one the actor clearly relishes giving.
Still, this is Buckley’s show. For all its considerable beauty (and it is beautiful, thanks to Garland’s sharp eye and the talents of cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby), when "Men" works it’s thanks to the immediacy of Buckley’s performance. The recent Oscar nominee is, as ever, fearless, throwing herself into Harper’s life and the surreal world in which she finds herself without affectation or vanity. That moment with the apple? It should be terrible. Yet Buckley fills it with Harper’s sorrow, anger and hunger for a life that’s her own.
WATCH FREE ON TUBI: Jessie Buckley in "Beast"
While Garland fails to rise to the level of his star, he does, at least, match her in his willingness to simply go for it. "Men" fails as an exploration of societal ills in a way that should frankly embarrass the guy who gave Tessa Thompson this scenein "Annihilation," but when it comes to visceral thrills, he’s still got the juice. Garland uses elements of folk horror to make the daytime every bit as unsettling as what goes on in the dark, and his tendency to craft scares that rely less on sudden jumps than sustained discomfort serves him very well. (There’s a thing with an arm that’s now living rent-free in my brain.) That approach is especially effective as the film reaches its baffling, gruesome and, yes, overly simplistic climax.
Jessie Buckley. Courtesy of A24.
Of course, "simple" isn’t inherently a condemnation. Some big, important ideas are also very simple: the notion that people should have control over their own bodies, that they don’t exist only as sexual objects or emotional caregivers, and so on. But if you’re not willing to engage with the complexities found behind whatever door you decide to kick open in your quest to make your point, you’re more likely to end up with a bumper sticker than a story. "Men" is made for a great trailer. Give it a watch. You’ll get almost everything the film has to offer.
D.I.Y. Double Feature: "Men" and "I Spit on Your Grave"
Camille Keaton in "I Spit on Your Grave," now streaming for free on Tubi.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978): In the years that followed its ban in countries like the U.K. (it was branded a "video nasty"), "I Spit on Your Grave" has been elevated to cult status while also leading to sequels and remakes (including Steven R. Monroe’s 2010 version). Many words have been dedicated to this film, including critic Roger Ebert famously calling it "a vile piece of garbage." Rated R. 101 minutes. Dir: Meir Zarchi. Featuring: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleeman.
About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.
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