In 2015, I listed Alex Garland’s debut directorial effort as my favorite film of the year. It was a provocative science fiction film that had big ideas and themes to build around. It reminded me of a lot of 70s science fiction films and the ending was a bit nihilistic. like the three Charlton Heston sci fi films of that era. I waited on his second film “Annihilation”, because something in the marketing warned me that it was going to be a tough go. I watched it finally, just a few days ago and my instinct was correct. “Annihilation” is beautifully mounted and skillfully assembled, but the story feels incomplete and there is not an discernable theme to pull it together. I don’t need the theme to hit me over the head but when it is so obtuse that I don’t care to think about it, I believe the film maker has come up short. That brings us to his newest film, “Men”. Will this be a thought provoking horror film, one that potentially says something about the title subject, or will this be an exercise in abstraction, satisfying only those who have enough imagination to impose an idea on the film?
Let me make a couple of comparisons for you that might make my point clearer. Robert Eggers has directed two films that I have come to loathe, because of his instance that internal logic and a plot are less important than mood and exaggerated characterizations. David Lowery, made a movie that I loved, a reimagining of “Pete’s Dragon“, that mixed sadness with hope and a clear story. He then followed it with the acutely dense, slow and cryptic “A Ghost Story” and last years “The Green Knight“, both of which have much going for them, except a point. I’m afraid that Alex Garland has joined their cult of artistic ambiguity and instead of prompting thought, his films now stimulate irritation. “Men” is a horror film that works on atmosphere in the first two acts, and then revulsion in the third, all in aid of shrugged shoulders as some might ponder what it was all about, and others ponder why they bothered.
The set up of a woman, damaged by a marriage that ended in a tragically ugly way, seeking solace in the countryside, seems perfectly fine as a starting point. There is a juxtaposition of beauty in the natural countryside with the ugliness of people she encounters in the small village and the manor house that she has leased for a few weeks. It won’t take you too long to figure out why all of the men she encounters become increasingly creepy. The subtle similarities are there for us to catch on to, and that is great, but it is not clear why her fears are manifesting in this manner. There is a very strong suggestion that all of this is a projection of her feelings about her husband and their relationship, but there are also signs and evidence that this is far from just a mental breakdown, and in fact there is a malevolence that is imposing itself on her in real life. I don’t see a third way to explain what is going on and the bifurcation of sources here is never really resolved which is very deflating to the film. When a final character appears at the very end, there is another element that evokes possible meaning, but the strain that you would have to go through to get there is not worth the effort.
If there is anything to recommend the film more positively, it is the three pronged fork of Rory Kinnear, Jessie Buckley, and the special effects team that does dramatic work in the last act. Kinnear is a prolific television actor in British episodic programs. He has been best known to me as Bill Tanner, “M”‘s Chief of Staff in the James Bond films of Daniel Craig. Here he manifests some startlingly different character traits, across a plethora of opportunities. It is best to let you discover those on your own if you are inclined to see the film. Jessie Buckley has captivated me since “Wild Rose” and her character here is vastly different than that role. Harper, the woman Buckley portrays, is emotionally fragile but also self sufficient and a bit stubborn. She can scream with the best of them, but she can also fight back, and in an interesting way at the end, her battle is the most passive strategy you can imagine. I’m not sure it makes sense, but she sells it. Finally, if you are a fan of body horror and creatively grotesque visual effects, the climax of the film will impress you as far as the gore facto is concerned. There is a Russian style nest of dolls sequence which will nauseate you enough to at least get an ick factor out of this horror film.
The aggressively woke title of the film, seems to mean nothing in the long run. If you were expecting a political or social commentary from the film, prepare to be disappointed. At best, the theme of one man’s obsessive possessiveness , is cloudy. It might be there, or it might just be a figment of your imagination. Whoa, that’s the same problem as the whole film, imagine that.