The trailer for “Men” is simple; a little too simple. Like scores of horror characters before her, we see that Jessie Buckley has relocated to the countryside in order to get away from the horrors of her real life. Of course, something isn’t quite right with her new home. Her plans for tranquility are quickly interrupted by an unknowable, gradually encroaching, and possibly supernatural threat. Increasingly, she is tormented by an endless series of Rory Kinnears, as the small English country town she is taking up residence in seems to be exclusively made up of men (and a child) with the same face (all portrayed by neo-“Bond” player Kinnear) – and they are all intent on disturbing her. For what reason? I suppose you have to watch the film to find out… but the answer isn’t a straight one.
To assume that the director of “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” has fashioned a run-of-the-mill home invasion horror would be foolish, though the trailer is intentionally misleading. This misdirection ties into the very nature of the film and its self-reflexive approach to the horror genre and its conventions while using this to work in an overt commentary on how women move through a man’s world. And it lands. Mostly. On the one hand, it all comes off as a partly reductive, gender essentialist look at the interactions between men and women. On the other, it is not entirely what the film is doing either, and it is a unique tactic for a topic that is often clumsily, and obnoxiously handled in newer films. Then again, “Men” does, at times, seem to be aware of itself — one of the first scenes follows Harper (Buckley) as she takes a bite of an apple from the tree in her new home’s garden, only to be told by the caretaker, Jeffrey (Kinnear), that it was “forbidden fruit.” He then laughs at her dismay and assures Harper he’s kidding, conscious of the silliness of his joke. It’s all a bit too obvious, isn’t it?
Ultimately, “Men” hinges partly on this self-awareness, though it is still “trying to say something” about pertinent social issues all at once. It largely works in terms less relevant to its timely subject material and more in how it was described by director Alex Garland in the Q&A that took place after a recent screening: as a horror film about the sense of horror. It’s a sense which functions both in fiction and in real life. “Men” messes around with horror tropes, yet it is this very toying around with conventions that plays into the thematic text. The idea that, in horror, women find themselves tormented ad infinitum by a series of the same different kinds of male archetypes. The creepy caretaker, the creepy child, the creepy priest, and the creepy guys at the local bar. And so, this naturally bleeds out into real life. These threats all tend to share the same face, even if they don’t belong to the same person.
Or do they? For the man whose destructive actions catalyze the film’s events is James (Paapa Essiedu, who evokes visceral emotional pain with such dramatic intensity that we feel for him even as we recoil from him): Harper’s recently deceased husband. James’s death instigates harper’s decision to get away from city life, resulting from a violent quarrel over Harper’s announcement to James that she wants to divorce him. This leads her to throwing him out of her apartment and his failed attempt to climb back in from the apartment above hers, instead falling to his death. But Harper must live forever in uncertainty over whether James’s tragic death was the slip and fall accident it was purported to be or a calculated, self-inflicted decision based on the nature of their argument.
The relaxation and solitude Harper desires from her country sojourn is soon broken by the first appearance of the nude Rory Kinnear, who looks to be stalking Harper. He follows her back to her expansive new home after exploring the lush wilderness nearby (a sequence that reveals what is possibly the film’s most spellbinding scene, when Harper makes music from her own echo in a tunnel). Clearly, the nude Kinnear is meant to recall Adam from the myth of creation as he trails Harper back to her home and begins pawing at the apples from the tree in her yard like he’s in the Garden of Eden. Every other man, every Rory Kinnear who Harper meets in the town, is some varying degree of dismissive or weird or just plain antagonistic. Aside from Jeffrey – at least, for a little while. Kinnear, truly chameleonic in the film, embodies them all with a strange sort of twinkle in his eye.
In film and in real life, women are plagued by these outside threats, indistinguishable from one to the next. A kind stranger can just as easily transform into a life-threatening situation. The police officer meant to protect Harper shares the same face as the man who’s stalking her. But the scariest monster is coming from inside the house—the one who isn’t a monster at all. As noted during the Q&A, it’s the banal scenes of gendered violence— the fight between Harper and James, a scene in which a vicar lends Harper his ear, then blames her for her own tragedy — which functions as the film’s most difficult moments. But again, it’s all a bit… obvious, whether that notion is intended or not. The film is self-aware, but it’s hard to know exactly how far that extends. And though it’s a clever way to play up often tired horror formulae by tying them into these themes in a distinctive way, the message is still a little questionable. It’s hard not to watch the film as a woman and feel like, “Well, yeah, I know all this.” As it was both directed and written by Garland, it makes it even harder to dismiss.
Still, as someone who finds themselves frequently exhausted by the relative blandness and lack of creativity in newer horror films, I like the idea of a horror film that’s a little bit about the lack of creativity in horror films. The trailer for “Men” underwhelmed because it looked like every other horror film being made now, and the trailer operated like every other modern horror trailer. But that’s entirely intentional. The film picks at these tropes and fashions a text out of that very mundanity, whether or not that text consistently works. And speaking of creativity, one particular aspect that “Men” is not lacking in is imagination. I say that partly tongue in cheek, as the movie features two scenes towards the end of act three, which are both easily, for me, two of the most revolting sequences I have ever witnessed in a movie. Though there will always be something lacking when CGI body horror is favored over practical SFX, “Men” reaches a point where my mouth was struck agape by what I was watching. I find that films are never willing to be as disgusting as I’d like them to be, so I was delighted by this development.
In the end, “Men” works best as a surprising slice of cosmic horror and a showcase for Buckley in a near-constant state of emotional duress, particularly her on-screen screaming abilities. The film coasts on a reasonably simple, straightforward path and ends up at a climax that recalls Garland’s previous film, “Annihilation,” music and all. Ultimately I am always appreciative of a horror film that does not explain away what goes bump in the night and instead actually dares one to face questions left intentionally unanswered. In this case, it’s somewhat undercut by the apparent thesis that underneath all desperate, disgusting men are individuals craving to be loved and lashing out, even if they don’t necessarily deserve what they desire. But as the same goes in love and life, “Men” is a lot to contend with. [B]