Alex Garland's Most Ambiguous Horror Is Unsettling & Surreal

Writer-director Alex Garland knows how to get under one’s skin, to provoke a reaction no matter if it’s good, bad, or anywhere in between. Ex Machina was his most straightforward work, but there was still a deep sense of ambiguity. With Annihilation, this ambiguity, as well as an intense sense of dread and unease are all the more present. In Men, Garland’s third feature effort, the horror is more unsettling and shudder-inducing. The film is comfortable in giving some answers while leaving the rest up for analysis. Bolstered by outstanding performances by Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear, Men is sinister, strange and mostly effective in its handling of women's trauma, even when not everything works.

Harper (Buckley) drives to the country for what is meant to be a nice, quiet weekend away from the turmoil and stress of her life. Flashbacks reveal Harper was asking James (Paapa Essiedu) for a divorce, but he was unwilling to let her go. Emotional and, on one occasion physical, abuse were key to James trying to keep Harper in their marriage, and his death still stings despite it not being her fault. At the country house, Harper is greeted by its owner, Geoffrey (Kinnear). Their interactions are harmless and awkward at best, but it’s when Harper goes for a walk through the woods surrounding the house that things get creepy and weird. She is followed by a naked man who then tries to get into the house. Harper is shaken after and things only get worse for her from there.

Related: Alex Garland's New Movie Is Repeating His Best & Most Divisive Trick

Men is the kind of movie that will give one plenty to think about after and it’ll surely be discussed because it’s so intriguing. The combination of body horror and strong central themes build towards an ending that is quite visceral, allowing the audience to sit in their discomfort as they things unfold. It’s in these final scenes that the excellent special effects turn something natural into something quite grotesque, its symbolism — of how the toxicity of men continues from one generation to the next — deeply meaningful. Cinematographer Rob Hardy creates a distinct color palette that changes in each setting. Lush green and vibrant in moments when Harper is alone and dark, eerie when she is not.

Men is elevated by the superb performances of its cast. Buckley, who was nominated for an Oscar for her turn as Leda in The Lost Daughter, is fantastic as she plays with the range of Harper’s emotions throughout. Her body language changes in every situation, most comfortable when she’s on the phone with friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), and tense when she no longer feels safe or is agitated. Harper’s emotions run high — shifting from feeling calm to terrified, heartbroken to uneasy — and Buckley does well to convey each of these with nuance. Kinnear is impressive here, too, portraying several characters besides Geoffrey, including a priest and a cop. He’s tasked with being formidable, sometimes kind, and other times horrible and creepy. Kinnear plays each character so well that viewers will surely not realize it’s the same actor in various roles.

The film is a horror that lifts from the real-life challenges, discomfort, and fear that women often have in their day-to-day lives. Every time Harper finds herself in a seemingly safe space — a home, a church, trying to get a drink at a bar — she is harassed, made uncomfortable, or scared for her safety. It creates stressful situations and it never lets up, which speaks to the ways in which women navigate life while the men in it (knowingly or indirectly) contribute to the stress and unease. Garland’s vision is meticulous, though Men doesn’t particularly feel complete. It’s more of a turmoil-filled moment in time for Harper, who is made to feel guilty for James’ death, than a fully realized story. It’s also haunting in many respects, but Men ultimately falters in its lack of feeling whole with regards to Harper’s journey.

To that end, the film is a combination of great ideas that could have gone a bit further. It shows how a woman’s trauma affects her, with Harper being blamed, not being listened to or believed, and being abused weighing on her, affecting her and her actions. But Garland leaves things hanging, choosing to remain vague and open-ended so the audience will have something to chew on after, including the religious imagery noticeably present throughout. Regardless of its shortfalls, however, Men is captivating from start to finish, bizarre, and surreal. It embraces its attributes wholeheartedly, leaning into the unnerving horror and aggressiveness of the situation Harper is in. If nothing else, Men is ambitious and intense, unabashedly horrific and disconcerting. It doesn’t do everything it could have to elevate its story, but it’s firmly comfortable in its lack of resolution and less-than-straightforward simplicity.

Next: The Twin Review: Horror Attempts To Subvert Expectations With Some Success

Men releases in theaters on May 20. The film is 100 minutes long and is rated R for disturbing and violent content, graphic nudity, grisly images and language.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5 (Good)
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Mae Abdulbaki (1145 Articles Published)

Mae Abdulbaki is a movie reviews editor with Screen Rant. She previously wrote about a variety of movies and TV shows for Inverse, CinemaBlend, Pajiba, and The Young Folks, where she wrote reviews, features, news pieces. Her other work can be found at The Mary Sue, Film School Rejects, UPROXX, Heroic Hollywood, Looper, The List, and Bam Smack Pow, among others. Mae has also appeared on television segments, podcasts, and panels to discuss all things entertainment.

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