Men is, by design, the sort of film meant to cause discussion and controversy. That it does so with fine acting and a good visual lens is a big thumbs-up. That it has the bravery to confront one of society’s issues with a slow-burn plot is admirable. Perhaps it was inevitable that it would stumble a little in it’s finale but overall, it still is a good ride while it lasts.
Most great directors let you know who is behind the camera within thirty seconds and Alex Garland has established his style through past films like the excellent Ex-Machina and the underrated Annihilation. His films often focus on women (human or otherwise) rising from a challenge to gain some sort of power or respite. Joining his past characters is Harper (Jessie Buckley), an anguished young woman who watched her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) jump to his death. The build up and aftermath of this moment are interwoven throughout the narrative as she retreats to the English countryside and rents a cottage from Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear).
The house is lovely, Geoffrey less so, as he pokes and prods, smiling in a way that makes Harper uncomfortable. He’s the first of many characters Harper encounters while exploring the seemingly quiet village. They appear one or two at a time, like the priest judging Harper’s decisions in life, or a teenage boy insulting her for refusing to play along with his creepy game. It should be noted that all of these males are played by Kinnear who gets to show off a wide range as he changes mannerisms and expressions while still finding ways to make us shiver. Him and Buckley work well with one another but the most powerful scene for me finds Harper on her own for a while, exploring the lush forests and staring into a dark tunnel with a light at the other end. Does it represent where her life is headed? Perhaps.
On a technical level, the film is quite successful, allowing many little moments to happen in the background when the camera isn’t trustingly focused on Buckley. Garland returns to his fondness for sunset-lit interiors and nature with new tricks that invite an audience to pay attention. Unlike his previous works, the film dabbles more in folklore and something far older than the emergence of new scientific advancements, making use of stone walls and the shadows around a large tree in Harper’s lawn.
The film has a bit of mysticism in it, the town’s quiet stance reminded me of such films like Children of the Corn or the remake of House of Wax where isolated doesn’t mean abandoned. Each of Kinnear’s characters represent a particular struggle women often have when interacting with men and the concept works quite well. As she continues to be harassed, stalked, taunted, and doubted, Buckley continues to hold the film together as all the ‘men’ of the film begin to appear together. There is such a great discussion to be had about how hard it can be to appease or defend against one person, let alone many. The village is society and it’s powerful on a metaphorical level. In a time when women’s rights are being challenged and inequality is still rampant, I daresay the film will become a cult classic if viewers can accept it’s ending.
I reached a conclusion on the climax, and no doubt, I could be completely wrong. However, the issue isn’t with how to interpret the gruesome events, but why they felt a little out of place. There are some fun body-horror elements and a logical end for Harper, but a part of my brain is saying that it isn’t even necessary, not because of its darkness, but because of how it works as a plot point. Perhaps a second viewing will be needed. Since the film did so well on so many fronts, I think I can stomach that. Some viewers who’ve never experienced Cronenberg may not be as lucky.
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