Alex Garland’s Men is remarkable, not so much for its basic story—a fairly typical horror-film situation about a young woman, on the mend from a personal tragedy, who unwisely decides to vacation, alone, in an old dark house in the country, and what happens to her. Nor for its splendid yet in the end rather commonplace production values, geared for maximum shock in today’s burgeoning horror market. Nor even for the performances of Jessie Buckley as Harper, the woman in question, and Rory Kinnear as the house’s very odd, very creepy owner/caretaker, one of several frightening roles Kinnear inhabits as the story unwinds.
Writer-director Garland doesn’t even score easy points in the social relevance sweepstakes for this latest dispatch from the male-female front of the current culture wars. Rather, his candidly titled new film’s considerable power comes from a seductive combination of story, performances, settings, crisply edited action and the never-ending wonder surrounding the mystery of sexual relations. Men is a psychodrama that concerns itself with the vulnerability of women, in no uncertain terms.
When Harper arrives at the picturesque mansion after motoring down from London—the film is set in the County of Gloucestershire in the Cotswolds region of southwestern England—she is met at the door by the landlord, Geoffrey (Kinnear). Geoffrey has the bashful, almost torpid manner of the stereotypical semi-upper-class gent putting on a folksy demeanor for his guest. That is, he’s “charmingly” awkward in the way Hugh Grant’s characters were in the early stage of that actor’s career—Grant could get away with that in Maurice or Sense and Sensibility, but Kinnear can’t, or his sinister landlord simply won’t. There’s something about Geoffrey’s face that’s a bit off. Maybe it’s his mouth, which twists into a painful smile with prominent, ugly teeth. But that’s the least of Geoffrey’s problems, and the beginning of Harper’s as she enters into the lush, green, forbidding forest with its population of threatening archetypes.
Harper is fleeing the very fresh memories of her late partner, James (Paapa Essiedu, seen in flashback), who went out the window of their building after another of their screaming rows and ended up impaled on the wrought iron fence. Theirs was a violent relationship, establishing and reinforcing Harper’s wounded wariness toward aggressive males, or threatening situations the same—all of which pop up around her like mushrooms at her “getaway” destination. And so her personal grief and guilt steadily edge into apprehension, eventually panic, with what she sees in and around the old dark house. The men. They never stop coming. Something is very definitely wrong with either the village of Cotson and its menfolk, or perhaps with the beleaguered Harper herself. It gets worse. (We hereby resolve not to use the worn-out term “gaslighting” in this review. At least not anymore, we promise.)
Garland is to be congratulated for leaving behind the labored sci-fi of Ex Machina and Annihilation for the eerie “old religion” folkways and haunted woods, the Sheela Na Gig and her masculine counterpart the Green Man, the starry night sky, the phantasms and pub louts, the loneliness of the brutalized and unsatisfied. Actor Buckley (The Lost Daughter, Wild Rose) brings to the party a primal Irish identification with both suffering and fairies, while James Bond regular Kinnear (son of ace character player Roy Kinnnear) disappears into his victim’s nightmares—the Vicar is particularly malevolent.
Men climaxes (that is the word) with an extravaganza of grotesquery. Kudos to cinematographer Rob Hardy, production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day, visual effects director David Simpson and the melancholy “Love Song” in two versions: one featuring the tune’s composer, Lesley Duncan, and the other, her duet with Elton John. A song destined for shockeroo glory. Never mind that Harper’s ordeal is reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve’s frightful weekend in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Men stands on its own as a dynamo of heartache taken to extremes.
In theaters May 20